No one would say Ben Koons gives up easily. Not only did he achieve his goal of being an Olympic skier – but despite the odds – his dream sustainable home is now under construction and proving net zero is possible.
Born and raised on the South Island of New Zealand, he made his trek to the US by moving to central Maine in high school. He’s a Nordic skier who raced in college and during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. After spending some time in the architecture world of San Francisco, he planted his flag in the valley in 2012. Locally, he’s known for his work with Al Beyer Design and as a Nordic ski coach for Aspen Valley Ski & Snowboard Club.
His free time is spent doing all the things that draw people to the Roaring Fork Valley: backcountry skiing, climbing, mountain biking, and trail-running. When I asked what adventures he’s been getting after lately, his answer was frank. “Right now on the weekends, you can find me on the job site.”
Koons came across what he described as a “funky piece of land” in Old Snowmass that multiple people have tried (and failed) to develop. It’s been through so many hands that Koons describes a cheeky interaction with the building department, whose first response was, “Oh, this piece of property again?”
The land might have its flaws, but Koons is up for the challenge. The local architect commented that the property “shows the state of the valley” where the affordable land left is largely “funky, steep, and has some issues.”
Despite the quirkiness of the lot, Koons has pushed forward with designs for a net-zero home, a concept where homes produce as much energy as they consume. During the initial construction phase, he started off by taking advantage of cheaper — and more fun — labor: his friends. “I’m trying to make it work financially and figuring out how I can involve my friends for free labor … and still, keep my friends,” Koons said with a laugh.
Through his architecture work, Koons has always been interested in building high-performance, green, net-zero homes. With his friends helping lay the groundwork, he brought in local, qualified subcontractors to get the job over the finish line. “I’m not a contractor, I have an architecture background. So this has been a massive learning experience and everyone has been super useful and enthusiastic.”
In order to achieve net zero, Koons’ design returned to the basics of passive house and energy efficiency. “It’s really the boring, less jazzy things that matter: well-sided, well insulated. The most important thing is to invest in the [building] envelope.”
Koons furthers his sustainable practices with an eye for reclaimed materials: “There is so much waste with teardowns in the valley, all my appliances are from other projects. It adds up to about $10,000 and I can use that money to invest back into the insulation and solar PV.”
In addition to his focus on the envelope, the home is all-electric with ductless mini-split heat pumps. This heating method can reduce electricity consumption by 50% compared to older electric heating models and as technology improves, so has their ability to function in cold climates and at high altitudes.
Koons’s project represents a young person in the Roaring Fork Valley trying to make affordable housing work. He’s used his connections, whether it be free friend-labor or skilled contractors, and scoured teardowns for appliances to help him hit his bottom line. That’s exactly why he reached out to CORE regarding their net-zero home grants.
“CORE is such a great resource in the valley. It would be a shame not to use it.”
CORE’s Net Zero Homes grants utilizes the HERS index to determine grant amounts, and pays more the better your house performs. “Our Net Zero Homes grant supports innovative homes that use less energy, cut carbon, and harness on-site renewable energy,” said Marty Treadway, Program Director + Grants Manager.
By taking advantage of CORE’s incentives, Koons can potentially receive up to $8,000 in grant funds. And to sweeten the pot, the Net Zero grant can be combined with CORE renewable energy rebates, leaving up to $4,750 in rebates for solar thermal and PV on-top of the grant amount. Koons is six months into a project with an anticipated finish date of mid-April. Upon its completion, he’ll give CORE a call with a HERS rating in hand, to see what funds he’s eligible for.
This transformation of an idiosyncratic, steep piece of land in Old Snowmass showcases how friends and community can come together to build something great. And great in our eyes — as in Ben’s — means a highly efficient home emitting zero greenhouse gas emissions into our local atmosphere.
BONUS: Just after the winter holidays, Ben Koons invited CORE and local photographer Dan Bayer, into his construction zone. Check out the pictures below and see how net-zero buildings come alive.