Blog by Beebe Cline

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Meet a High-Tech Home That Monitors Itself

Not long ago a friend let us borrow her hybrid car so we could travel from Port Angeles, Washington, to Seattle. The car was amazingly energy efficient. A really cool feature was the dashboard display, which provided constant feedback on energy use and source. For example, when we were waiting at a drawbridge, we could see just when the gas engine provided power and when the car was in battery mode only. And while in motion, the display kept us informed as to how many miles per gallon we were getting. Sure enough, having that instant feedback altered the way I drove, going a little slower and not being, as my wife would say, Speed Racer all the time.

And the car was quite comfortable, even luxurious. It was a larger sedan that I could fit in comfortably, and it had a terrific sound system. Not once did we feel like we were giving up something in the name of efficiency. Which brings up the question: If we can build cars like this, why can't we do the same for houses?

Well, the good news is we can. Here's just one example: a home designed by Lake/Flato Architects, where some wonderful architecture is combined with energy efficiency for a truly special home.
The client approached the architects and asked for a highly sustainable home; the architects, who are committed to the 2030 Challenge, designed a home that is LEED Platinum certified. In brief, the 2030 Challenge is a goal that all new and renovated buildings be carbon neutral by the year 2030. A number of strategies, from low-tech yet appropriate site design to high-tech photovoltaic collectors, were used to achieve that goal with this house.

But what makes this home special is its design. In fact, Tenna Florian, the project architect, says her favorite aspect of the house is how its shape was determined by existing tree locations. Rather than having rooms arranged in a linear composition, the home is L-shaped to accommodate existing features of the site. While one leg of the L has a lot of glass area to create light and bright public spaces, glazing was kept to a minimum on the other leg.
Extensive clerestory windows turn the home into a wonderful and warm lantern in the evening while ensuring that no artificial lighting is needed throughout the entire day.

While there's a lot of glass in this home, it's strategically placed to get the maximum benefit with the minimum cost and energy loss. Tenna points out that a typical custom house has 30 to 40 percent of the wall area as glass, but this house has 23 percent, which is closer to a typical house.
Much of the glass is in the form of clerestory windows, which provide wonderful views of the sky and treetops.

The main entry is at the intersection of the two legs of the L. This entry is kept low, with a ceiling height of only 7 feet, 6 inches, to give a sense of compression and make the main living space feel taller and brighter.
By providing this interior courtyard at the intersection of the two legs of the L, the architects ensured that each room gets natural light from at least two sides. This again keeps the interior light and bright and, once the courtyard landscaping matures, will allow views of nature from every room.
In keeping with the clients' goal of creating a highly sustainable home, a photovoltaic system generates electricity. The energy produced by this system is monitored in real time, so the owners can see how their house is performing.

The monitoring system, by eMonitor, cost less than $1,000 and helps the owners understand where the energy comes from and how it's being used. For example, this graphic shows a large fall-off of energy production from the photovoltaic system. This enabled the owners to quickly see that there was a problem, diagnose its cause and do the necessary fix. If it hadn't been for the monitoring system, the problem could easily have gone unnoticed.
This graphic is really telling; it shows how much energy each activity consumes. (It should be noted that the home has several television sets, computers and other modern-day tools. The owners don't, by any stretch of the imagination, live anything but 21st-century lives.)

This graphic shows that a small item, the instant hot water dispenser in the kitchen, is a large consumer of energy. Rather than giving up the pleasure and convenience of having a cup of tea without waiting, the homeowners installed an on-off switch to limit the amount of time the hot water dispenser draws power.

The home is also equipped with a "green switch" in the garage. When the owners leave the house for any extended period, they can easily flip the green switch to turn off many of those items that would stay on and continue to draw power. This kind of power usage, sometimes referred to as a vampire load, can be quite significant. Think about all of those devices that keep drawing power even when not in use.
The monitoring system also provides insights into how much energy the house was designed to consume, how much energy it was designed to produce and how much actual energy is consumed and produced. Real-time metrics tell the owners whether they're hitting their goals and, if not, why not.
Drumroll, please ... in 2012 the house produced more energy than it consumed. Wouldn't it be nice for all of our houses to do that?
While the monitoring and photovoltaic systems are all really high-tech approaches to energy efficiency, there's nothing better than creating enjoyable spaces that let us live comfortably and ...
... harvesting and repurposing 100 percent of what normally gets wasted — as in, all of the rainwater's getting captured, used for irrigation or returned to the community's water supply.