Architect Joaquin Karcher is the owner of Zero E Design ( He specializes in the design and build of “net zero energy” homes. The total amount of energy used is roughly equivalent to the amount of renewable energy created onsite. Thus, the energy used and the energy created “zero” each other out.

In addition to his innovative approach to home design and build, Karcher has been noticing nationwide trends and experience in his own local business: “The market is shifting and more and more people are looking for smaller but super comfortable and high efficient homes.”

Small homes are defined as those under 1,000 square feet. Karcher has three recent experiences –– ranging from 600 s.f. to 950 s.f. –– and he has observed a few trends:

Enter the Millennials

“Millennials are becoming homebuyers now and they have specific requirements. [This age demographic of people] grew up in the crash of 2008; they have basically been growing up in the worst economic recession this country has seen. They are very conscientious about spending and debt. They are looking for affordability and cost. They are looking for shorter mortgages and lower upfront costs. They are interested in lower overhead in utility cost and low maintenance. They want to be flexible; they don’t want to be tied down. They want to be able to pick up and leave at any time. They are conscious about their health and buy organic food. They are interested in healthy materials and a healthy living environment. They are environmentally conscious and interested in buying homes that don’t need fossil fuels in order to operate.”

Exit the Boomers

The other segment influencing the trend toward small homes is the Baby Boomers. As retirees, they are different from Millennials –– yet similar in that “they too want lower monthly bills, low overhead, maintenance-free, and security and peace of mind from volatile energy costs because they are on fixed income. They don’t want to be exposed to a volatile energy market and be subject to spiking. They want to have a predictable expense for their lifestyle. Low maintenance is important because they don’t want to take care of so much property. They are interested in smaller, efficient, lower cost, and easy-to-maintain homes –– with preferably no utility cost at all. That’s where the ultra efficiency comes in.”

Working with clients

Karcher works with his clients to understand their needs, their values, and their lifestyles. For example, “the Millennials are very outdoorsy,” he says. “They just want a place where they can just drop their stuff; not a huge house with a three-car garage and a huge mortgage. They want a smaller footprint, simple living, and a small, high-functioning home that is environmentally friendly. That segment is growing exponentially.”

Working with his clients, they develop a vision together. Karcher explains: that’s where design comes in; a good design develops a vision that reflects a client’s lifestyle and their requirements.

“When that vision is being accomplished by design, then we go into the specifics of that design –– for example, efficiency: no wasted spaces. And most of the time we multi-use space; this is an important tactic. We eliminate the living room with a sitting nook or alcove. Or, it’s definitely not a formal living room anymore. The kitchen is small and efficient, and it is a very ‘communicative’ kitchen with an open floor plan. Everyone likes to talk to the cook and hang out in the kitchen. The kitchen is the most important room in the house.”

Experienced in Taos

Taos is a magical combination of alpine mountains, high mesa desert, and the roaring rapids of the Río Grande. So Enchanted Homes asked Karcher what are some special considerations to designing and building in Taos.

“The views are super important,” Karcher says. “The house always takes the views into consideration. People want to see the weather moving in and out, the whole spectacle –– particularly in the rainy season with the lightning and clouds. We highlight all of that with a big window. We can actually do this with the zero energy approach. We don’t need the large south-facing windows anymore. We are no longer dependent on passive solar heat because our concept is ‘zero energy.’ We build homes like a thermos today. That is our primary intention: to eliminate heat loss from the building envelope. In the past they didn’t pay attention to that; it was about windows.

Today, south-facing windows are more of an aesthetic choice rather than a driver for energy efficiency.”

Zero energy approach

“Think about it,” Karcher says, “why do we have to heat our homes?” It’s because we have assigned ourselves to the assumption that homes lose heat. Our approach is: If you don’t have heat loss, you have nothing to replace. Our ultra-efficient homes only use ten percent of what a conventional home would require. We’re dropping the heating energy demand by ninety percent.”

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