The House of the Future?


In Berkeley, we are fortunate to have such events as Science at the Theater, where Lawrence Berkeley National Lab researchers give talks on their work at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. The lectures are free and get a pretty sizeable audience. The lectures are recorded and put on YouTube.

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(The video can also be watched here – the technical stuff starts at about 10 minutes in.)

On May 10, 2010, I was in the audience as LBNL folks talked about their vision of the house of the future:

Learn what it will take to create tomorrow’s net-zero energy home as scientists reveal the secrets of cool roofs, smart windows, and computer-driven energy control systems.

The net-zero energy home
Scientists are working to make tomorrow’s homes more than just energy efficient — they want them to be zero energy. Iain Walker, a scientist in the Lab’s Energy Performance of Buildings Group, will discuss what it takes to develop net-zero energy houses that generate as much energy as they use through highly aggressive energy efficiency and on-site renewable energy generation.

Talking back to the grid
Imagine programming your house to use less energy if the electricity grid is full or price are high. Mary Ann Piette, deputy director of Berkeley Lab’s building technology department and director of the Lab’s Demand Response Research Center, will discuss how new technologies are enabling buildings to listen to the grid and automatically change their thermostat settings or lighting loads, among other demands, in response to fluctuating electricity prices.

The networked (and energy efficient) house
In the future, your home’s lights, climate control devices, computers, windows, and appliances could be controlled via a sophisticated digital network. If it’s plugged in, it’ll be connected. Bruce Nordman, an energy scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Energy End-Use Forecasting group, will discuss how he and other scientists are working to ensure these networks help homeowners save energy.

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner also spoke at the beginning, about energy in buildings and RECO programs.

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This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

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I am not (and have never been) a Bay Area homeowner, which is perhaps why I was not very familiar with the term “RECO” until recently.

There are many well-publicized programs aimed at making new buildings as “green” and energy efficient as possible. These efforts are viewed as integral to efforts to reduce future energy use and combat climate change. But in many places, we’re mostly stuck with the buildings that we’ve got. And we’ll likely be stuck with them for many years to come. So how do we influence and improve the energy and water performance of these buildings? One answer is a RECO.

Residential Energy Conservation Ordinance (RECO)

The purpose of a RECO is to improve the energy (and now water) efficiency of housing stock at the point of sale and major renovation.

In Berkeley, CA, the majority of the housing stock was built before the introduction of state building energy codes.  The buildings are often drafty, with no insulation and single-pane windows. Further, more than half of the city’s housing units are occupied by renters. In rental units landlords must approve and often conduct and pay for any major energy retrofits. However, the retrofits primarily benefit the renters, who pay the utility bills. Because of these split incentives, an obvious point of intervention to improve the energy efficiency of the existing building stock over time is at transfer of ownership or major renovation. The Berkeley RECO, which has been in place since the 1980s, applies to all residential homes and units, whether single-family homes, condos, multi-family properties, or live-work spaces, and requires that the home or unit comply with specific energy and water performance measures at the time of sale or major renovation.

The Berkeley RECO has ten prescriptive measures covering toilets, showerheads, faucets, water heaters, hot and cold water piping, exterior door weather-stripping, furnace ducts, fireplace chimneys, ceiling insulation, and lighting in common areas (for multi-family buildings).

It is tempting to say the measures are not enough, that much more drastic intervention (and more quickly) will be needed to achieve dramatic energy savings. This is probably true. But many approaches will be needed, and the gradual but consistent improvement of existing housing stock is a good place to start.

Since 1994, Berkeley has also had a Commercial Energy Conservation Ordinance (CECO).

Participants in Berkeley FIRST (Berkeley’s solar financing program) have to comply with RECO/CECO.

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What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.