Monday, June 8, 2009

The House of the Future

This week's newspaper column:

What does the future hold for sustainable, energy efficient housing? Let’s take a peek.

Technology is available now to revolutionize the way we monitor energy usage. Smart meters – already in use in some areas - let homeowners see in real time how much energy their home is consuming. It’s even possible to track each outlet, light, and appliance in the house to determine where the “energy hogs” are.

Got an old refrigerator sucking more than its fair share of electricity? A smart meter can identify excessive energy drains letting you know it’s time to recycle that old clunker to make room for a new super-efficient model. And with a user-friendly interface, you’ll be able to access this information from your desktop, your television, or from your phone while on vacation.

The next-generation house will manufacture some or all of its own energy. Every year, more and more energy-producing building products - photovoltaic shingles, for example – come on the commercial market. Imagine a house where the roof, walls, and windows all generate electricity feeding itself and selling back excess energy to the local energy company; each home becomes a mini power plant.

In the future, solar panels will not be “add-ons,” but will be integrated into the fabric of the structure. Instead of looking at panels mounted to a roof, you’ll see a wall and know it is collecting solar energy.

Currently, prices are high for this new breed of technology, but we are just now standing at the threshold looking in; think about how rudimentary computers were just a generation ago. Over the next few decades, we will find a boom in the availability of energy-producing building products, and like with computers, continual improvements in technology lower the cost per unit of energy produced.

Looking a bit further into the future we can expect intelligent building skins. Walls and roofs reflect or attract heat depending upon the season and time of day. Surfaces will automatically take into consideration the local environment’s temperature and humidity changing like a chameleon with the climatic forces at play.

And there are some eternal environmental solutions that are destined to make a comeback.

Natural ventilation as a way to cool and clean inside air has been used since man started building homes. Although technology advances, the basic principles of physics stay the same. Natural ventilation will be just as viable in the future as it was for our great-grandparents.

Indigenous vegetation planted in “just the right place” will clean the air and temper the home’s microclimate. For example, planting deciduous trees on the south side of the house shades the structure in the summer and, when fall strips the leaves, allows the passage of warm sun rays in the winter. Incorporation of plant life in the home of the future will be taken for granted.

Tomorrow will be here before you know it.

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