Solar Panels, Net-Zero Efficiency: John Rountree Is Energized

When solar panels were installed on the Westport Fire Department headquarters roof, it was one of the first such projects for any Connecticut municipality.

There are solar panels at the Westport train station too.

And on many homes in town — including John Rountree’s.

But the architect, and longtime solar power advocate, wishes there were more.

John Rountree

Rountree is no Johnny-come-lately to the benefits of converting the sun’s energy into electricity. He was studying architecture at Syracuse University when President Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof. (president Reagan removed them a few years later.)

Rountree incorporated solar into his own work, first with Valus & Carpenter and then at his own firm. For several years he also ran a solar consulting business.

The other day, he sat in his sunny home office, on Compo Road South. Rountree and his wife Cheryl have lived — and raised their 2 now-adult children — there since 1997.

They’ve done plenty of work on what was once a dilapidated 1910 home. Solar panels on it, and a nearby free-standing garage, are important (and money-saving) parts of their lives.

His house is not Net-Zero. (The term refers to super-efficient design and construction that can generate up to 100% of the energy it consumes, through renewable energy systems. With thick walls, high levels of insulation, high-performance windows, meticulous air sealing, balanced ventilation, well-functioning electric heat pumps and photovoltaic panels, they are quiet, well-ventilated, and extremely comfortable.)

But in 2015 he was hired to design a Net-Zero house on North Avenue, near Staples High School. The electric bill for the 7,000-square foot home is just $40 a month.

The owners don’t hear any traffic. And the air quality is “exceptional.”

Net-zero, on North Avenue. (Photo/Videler Photography)

Rountree is an advocate for anything that increases energy efficiency, and helps reduce carbon footprints.

More and more, he says, that’s what clients ask for.

Such design — whether new construction or part of a renovation — is more costly, by about 8-10%. However, he energy savings pay for themselves in just a few years.

The challenge is that not many contractors know how to build like that.

Nor do they want to.

“I don’t want to badmouth them,” Rountree says. “But adding 10% to the cost of a spec house can be a hard sell. So it really has to be a custom job, for a specific client willing to pay for it.”

Still, he says, “when you explain the benefits, why wouldn’t you build that way?” (The federal government offers tax credits for Net-Zero construction too, as well as up to 30% for solar panels. There are also state credits for energy efficiency.)

Solar panels are not just for homes. This is a rendering Roundtree made for Westport fire headquarters. The actual view today looks very similar.

These days, much of Rountree’s work involves renovations. “It’s hard with walls that are just 2x4s,” he says. “It’s a little easier if you take the siding off to add windows; then you can add insulation. Sometimes you do the best you can, with what you’re given.”

Solar panels are less difficult to install (and explain). All that’s needed is southern exposure, and few overhanging trees. (Rountree cringes when he sees panels on northern exposure, or hidden by branches.)

As he gives a tour of his own sustainably designed home — showing and describing his roof panels with its heat-recovery system, his European wood-burning stove with a built-in bake oven, and the array of batteries and pumps in the basement — Rountree is content.

John Rountree has added solar panels to his house, and a nearby garage.

He’s doing what he can, personally and professionally, for the environment, and the planet.

He’s raising awareness, so others can do the same.

On this chilly early spring day, his home is brightly lit.

And very, very warm.

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10 responses to “Solar Panels, Net-Zero Efficiency: John Rountree Is Energized

  1. According to the asssessor’s database, Rountree’s home at 130 Compo Read S. has gas heat, even though the sustainability people favor banning natural gas. Is this incorrect data or a case of “do as I say, not as I do.”

    • John Rountree

      Hi Peter,, Thank you for pointing that out. Yes we are not 100% net zero (yet), and we do use natural gas for cooking and partially for heating. We recently added heat pumps for our heating and cooling system and we use some gas for back-up.. My current goal is to get to net zero for our electric usage and we are considering adding more solar panels to do that. I would be happy to give you a tour anytime. Best, John

  2. Joe Strickland

    Dan, I wanted you and your readers to know that John Roundtree will be making a presentation to the Westport Public Site and Building Commission at our regular meeting on Thursday, April 13th at 5:00pm. Zoom details can be found on the Town meeting calendar. Thank you.
    Joe Strickland
    Chairman- PSBC

  3. Keep up the great work, John… Go Quakers!!

  4. So, John, are you in favor of gas bans such as the bill submitted by Rep. Steinberg – against gas stoves in particular – or other regs around the country banning new gas hookups entirely?

    If yes you are in the “Do as i say. not as I do” camp.

    Interestingly. a UC Davis study shows that only in 4 states do heat pumps reduce net CO2 emissions vs. natural gas furnaces. Insofar as gas stoves, their climate effect is de minimis.

    That’s because electricity most places tends to be generated by burning natural gas, and it’s only about 50% efficient because of energy lost to waste heat in generation and transmission, while gas furnaces can be 90+% efficient.

    The use of gas for electric generation around here has increased thanks to environmentalist-driven shutdowns of nuclear plants, such as CT Yankee, Indian Point, and Shoreham — the latter mostly completed but never allowed to open.

  5. BTW I have nothing against heat pumps. We use one here in our adopted state of NC (electric resistance backup) and it works great at very low cost vs CT.

    It helps that our electric rates are only a little more than 1/3 vs CT, and the grid’s much more reliable as well. That’s partly because Duke Energy is a much better run utility than Eversource, and partly because our grid was never split up to serve the interests of financiers who lobbied CT and surrounding states to make it happen.

    Good luck to anyone who switches to all electric in CT and hopes to save money!

  6. Thomas Poland

    Next needed is a masonry woodstove. I have built several at 95% efficiency! Need info? Contact email.

  7. Tom Duquette, SHS '75

    At our Texas ranch we have solar panels on our roof and barn roof too and generate more power than we use. Since we don’t have battery storage we use commercial power from the only provider in our rural area, a co-op that will not reimburse us for the excess power we generate for the grid. We pay a $30/month fee for the pole and meter on our property. We also have geothermal heating and cooling which works extremely well. As battery tech keeps getting better and cheaper that may be our next investment.

  8. Thanks for featuring John’s energy efficient home! John is an avid supporter of Sustainable Westport (check out his Y’s Men presentation from April ’22 – We have lots of info on our website about going solar (for instance, and we are currently working with Westport Public Library to schedule some presentations on solar, geothermal and heat pumps (both ground sourced and air sourced)

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