The World of Tomorrow

Submitted by Andrea on March 15, 2012

One of the many things I like about the internet is how it enables a green-building wannabe like me to eavesdrop on the hotshots at the popular table. And unlike the popular crowd at my junior high school, these people are generally quite friendly if I pipe in with my opinion.

This week the cool kids have been buzzing about Martin Holladay's post on GreenBuildingAdvisor.com about the huge impact of occupant behavior on how much electricity a house uses. He cites energy-use data from two super-insulated houses in Massachusetts: a zero-energy house in Montague and a large Passivhaus in Shrewsbury. The owners of the net-zero house used considerably less energy than predicted, whereas the owners of the passive house used much much more.

One big culprit in the second house is air conditioning. Passive houses in New England are optimized for cold weather, since that's the bigger requirement out here. But big south-facing windows with a high solar heat-gain coefficient can cause problems when the weather warms up, since they let in too much solar heat. Ted and I expect to have this problem, but we plan to address it by hanging exterior louvers from the south-facing windows in late spring (and then removing them in October or so). We might not get around to building them this year, but it's our long-term low-tech workaround to the problem.

The second culprit is plug loads (lights, appliances, TVs, computers, etc.). The Monday-morning quarterbacks in the green building community are rolling their eyes at the owners of the Shrewsbury passive house, who have two televisions (including an energy-gobbling plasma TV), a DVR, multiple computers, an old freezer and a dehumidifier in the basement, along with oodles of lights. The house still uses less overall energy than a conventional house, since the heating costs are so low, but it's nonetheless a bit embarrassing.

I shouldn't laugh, though, because Ted and I might find ourselves in a similar spot. We don't have a plasma TV or DVR, and we cleverly eliminated the need for a basement freezer and dehumidifier by not building a basement, but we are major computer geeks and have more than our share of blinking-light devices. We also have a deep attachment to automatic dishwashing, and I joke that we'll be able to use Ted's espresso machine to heat the entire house.

I got into a little Twitter exchange about it the other day with Passivhaus BMOC Mike Eliason and British architect and sustainability pro Elrond Burrell (both of whom have way more Twitter followers than I do). Here it is, minus some helpful details from rising star Floris Keverling Buisman, who gets bonus cool points for (A) being a co-founder of Four Seven Five, importers of geektastic high-performance construction products like this mini-HRV Ted covets even though we have no use for it, (B) living in Brooklyn, the Passivhaus epicenter of the western hemisphere, and (C) being from the Netherlands, which automatically boosts one's eco street-cred (hello bicycles!).

(My avatar is the extremely out-of-date rendering of our house, on the right.)

long Twitter exchange

The point I couldn't make in 140 characters is that energy-efficient living needn't be austere. Both of my interlocutors (intertwittulators?) point out that constraints can inspire brilliance — perhaps the biggest "constraint" in promoting green building is that people don't want to sacrifice their own comfort. Yes, our definition of comfort has grown out of proportion in the last 50 years, but I suspect that most people living in 4,000-sf houses secretly yearn for the relatively zen-like feel of a well-arranged 2,000-sf home.

The key phrase here is "well-arranged." If a smaller house lacks the rooms they need, they won't want it. Likewise, if an energy-efficient house doesn''t satisfy their longing for comfort and entertainment, they're not going to build one. I read a depressing blog post last year that described how to save energy by heating only the space your body occupies and only using task lighting right in front of you. Yeah... good luck getting that to catch on. Unless energy prices skyrocket (a distinct possibility but not a certainty), nobody is going to willingly embrace that lifestyle.

This is why Ted and I are so aggressively pursuing a third alternative: the low-energy-use house that doesn't sacrifice comfort. I hope we can tame our plug load, because I'd hate to be next year's poster child for Passivhaus overconsumption. We strategically chose our appliances and lighting to make conservation automatic and painless, plus we use smart power strips to curb our power-sucking ways. I really hope we can pull it off, and that everyone who visits us will get a peek at what I hope will become the new normal.

In 1939, General Electric wowed visitors at the NYC World's Fair with "the World of Tomorrow." They showed off modern kitchen appliances and other work-saving devices which wouldn't hit the mainstream for another decade or so. It all came at a cost, of course, and the climate is now a lot screwier than it was in 1939, but new problems inspire new solutions, and maybe Ted and I can help show people what that third alternative — a comfortable and ridiculously-efficient house — will look like.

Returning to my original topic (the green-building popular crowd), I have some good news: For the last few months I've been doing web design for some major sustainable-design hotshots: BuildingGreen.com. Founded by Alex Wilson, BuildingGreen publishes Environmental Building News, the GreenSpec product database, LEEDuser.com, and other essential green building resources.

Honestly, I can't believe my luck that they're based right here in Brattleboro and seem to need someone with my precise skill set. And I'm not referring to my Passivhaus-building experience — my relevant skills in this case are marketing and web design. Happily, they seem to like my writing style, and they even let me use the word "chump" on a promotional page. It's a real treat to work with genuine leaders in the field and to help promote their mission. Plus their office is in Brattleboro's old pipe-organ factory, which is about as excellent as it gets!