Harvard Built a Zero Emissions Home

Buildings use a lot of energy for heating and cooling throughout the year, homes are no exception. Harvard decided to build a zero emission “home” to test solutions that can be used in new buildings or retrofitted into existing structures. The design is smart in the sense it uses passive heat exchange and lighting while also using high tech sensors to monitor the home and adjust internal systems.

Rather than existing as a “sealed box,” HouseZero is designed to interact with the seasons and environment, sometimes rapidly adjusting itself to achieve comfort for its occupants without using powered HVAC systems.

For example, the home uses a “window actuation system” that relies upon software and room sensors to automatically open and shut windows as the outside temperature changes, intelligently moving air around the home to make it cooler or warmer (through cross ventilation and convection). This process is also driven by a “solar vent” in the basement.

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A Tiny, Efficient, Affordable, and Inexpensive House

It’s often argued that providing homes to people will alleviate poverty, the problem is that homes are insanely expensive. Many attempts at making cheap house have happened but most meet with little success because of a litany of reasons. The material cost of a building aren’t the burden – instead it’s everything else. A new house that costs only $20,000 (USD) is looking to change all of that.

Years of architecture students, and their advisors, have spent more than a hundred thousand hours tweaking each detail of the house to optimize both the function and the price. But the bigger challenge is fitting a house that’s completely different than normal into the existing system of zoning, and codes, how contractors do their jobs, and even mortgages.

“The houses are designed to appear to be sort of normative, but they’re really high-performance little machines in every way,” says Smith. “They’re built more like airplanes than houses, which allows us to have them far exceed structural requirements. … We’re using material much more efficiently. But the problem is your local code official doesn’t understand that. They look at the documents, and the house is immediately denied a permit simply because the code officials didn’t understand it.”

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Through the Window Glass

Throughout North America builders construct homes with no regard with how the sun beams down on the, causing many homes to overcompensate with excessively large air conditioning units. This means that do to poor thinking by the builder the homeowner has an increased cost of operating their home.

If you live in one of those buildings built with no regard for the environment there are things you can do to save some money:

While we often think of curtains and drapes as “window dressing,” their primary function, like that of conventional roller blinds and louvered blinds, is to prevent glare and provide privacy. They can also save quite a lot of energy during the cooling season. According to LBNL research, when installed over clear (not low-e) glass, these attachments alone can block 20%–60% of solar gain (depending on material and color), reducing or preventing the need for air conditioning. For comparison, the highest-performing low-solar-gain windows on the market have an SHGC of 0.20 or lower. While that means that those windows block 80% of solar gain while still permitting a somewhat darkened view, they don’t provide much privacy, so many people will still use curtains or blinds.

Combining the two is a good bet: the curtains offer privacy, while the low-SHGC windows block the sunlight before it gets into the house, which is much more effective (more on this in the discussion of awnings below). One drawback of using curtains or drapes is that you may end up with dark rooms and need to turn on lights, which can cut into energy savings. Louvered blinds can be adjusted at the top to let some daylight reflect off the ceiling, but this light will bring some heat with it—especially if you have clear glass rather than low-e. Another option may be a solar screen that filters sunlight and prevents solar gain but still permits a view—although curtains may still be needed for nighttime privacy.

There’s a lot of information and tips on how to improve your windows here.

Vinegar – The Unstoppable Cleaning Agent

Vinegar has been mentioned on here before, but it’s always good to remind ourselves about the natural powers of vinegar. Today I bring you 30 uses for vinegar around the house.

In the garden/around the house

Kill grass and weeds: Pour or spray full-strength vinegar on grass or weeds poking through your driveway or rearing their heads in other unsavory places.

In the car

Frost-free windows: If you know a chilly night is on the way, you can ensure that your windows will be frost-free when you wake up in the morning. Simply mix three parts vinegar to one part water, and coat your windows with the mixture the night before.a

House Made From Big Dig Materials

The Big Dig was a transportation infrastructure project for Boston that built a giant underground tunnel for automobiles. An architecture firm got their hands on left over building materials from the insanely expensive underground highway and decided to build a house.

As a prototype building that demonstrates how infrastructural refuse can be salvaged and reused, the structural system for this 3,400sf house is comprised of steel and concrete discarded from Boston’s Big Dig utilizing over 600,000 lbs of salvaged materials from elevated portions of the now dismantled I-93 highway. Planning the reassembly of the materials in a similar way one would systematically compose with a pre-fab system, subtle spatial arrangements are created from the large-scale highway components.

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