The Wall Street Journal has posted an interesting article on Green Homes of the Future, asking four architects “to design an energy-efficient, environmentally sustainable house without regard to cost, technology, aesthetics or the way we are used to living.”
According to the Journal, the idea was not to dream up anything impossible or unlikely. “Instead, we asked the architects to think of what technology might make possible in the next few decades.”
So what did the architects come up with?
- A house with a solar hot water system integrated seamlessly into the exterior without unsightly roof panels. Cool.
- Cement that absorbs carbon dioxide as it cures. Cool again.
- Geothermal heating and cooling. Already being done, but not nearly enough.
- Walls made of vertical “edible gardens,” which we find very cool and make us hungry.
- Even a house with a “biomorphic” skin that reacts to the weather, turning dark in the bright sun to insulate it from heat. Very, very cool!
But wait a minute: where are the high-tech home systems that will help us cut our energy use? I know this was an architectural exercise, but if you’re going to design an energy-efficient house of the future that technology will make possible, there have to be some elements of the design that helps us to curb our electrical energy consumption. And I’m not just talking about solar panels or windmills to generate more electricity for our use. I’m talking about the technologies that will help us cut our power use, even as our demand for it grows.
An average home in the next decade or two will very likely have an energy monitoring system so homeowners can check on their home’s electricity (and/or gas and water) consumption by hour, day, month, of year and while at home or remotely. There’s a real demand brewing for energy monitoring, which is almost essential if you add solar electric (PV) or other clean energies and you wish to monitor your investment. (You will!) Energy monitoring systems also save people 5 percent to 15 percent in energy costs, just be providing them feedback. And how do I know this will be a hot area? Google’s getting into it, meaning we can all have some form of energy monitoring in the next few years.
We’ll also likely be on some sort of “smart grid” within in next 20 or so years. Economic stimulus funds are going into its development, and for homeowners that means two-way communication with an electric utility. You’ll be able to pay a discounted rate to allow the utility to shut off your appliances during peak load periods, or to charge your electric car overnight instead of when you get home from work. There’s even talk of using a two-way system so plugged-in electric car batteries can power the grid.
Homes may even be powered by hydrogen cells—and make their own hydrogen for home use and for hydrogen-powered vehicles. I recently reported on a hydrogen-powered spec home being built for this purpose in South Carolina.
And that’s just the cooler stuff. I’m hearing about more high-end homes being built with home control systems that can cut power to many electronics devices, drastrically reducing energy-wasting vampire or standby power used by many electronics when they are “off.” Where will this be in 10 to 20 years? It should be standard in many new homes.
Sure, none of that’s really architectural. But what about windows and shades that open and close automatically, depending on the light level and temperature in a room? That’s strictly a high-end home thing right now as well, though it could also go mainstream. And remember, these homes dreamed up by architects for the Journal don’t have price limitations.
The fact remains that increasing our energy efficiency with our current technologies is still the easiest and most effective way both to curb our carbon output and save us money—whichever motive you prefer. And this will very likely be the case for the nest decade or two or three, at least.
Architects and home builders can design the shells of homes that will use far less energy, but with our electrical demands likely to keep increasing, we will need real and proven technologies to save us money and help the environment right in our homes. And they may as well be a big part of a home’s design.