Harvard Project to Demonstrate Affordable Ways to Make a Home Energy-Efficient

Harvard is moving forward with plans to build a model of an energy-efficient home by renovating a home from the 1920s. Known as the HouseZero Project, the initiative would turn the wooden home into a model of efficient and affordable green living.

Aiming High with Green Living

An initiative by the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities (CGBC), the HouseZero Project aims to create a prototype of an ultra-efficient building that requires almost no energy, products no carbon emissions and relies on natural lighting. By redesigning and retrofitting a prewar, stick-built home, the CGBC hopes to demonstrate that any existing building can be transformed to a model of efficiency without requiring a massive investment. In doing so, CGBC hopes to dispel the myth that building an energy-efficient home requires building a new building. The CGBC also hopes to show that these concepts can be replicated almost anywhere in order to address the inefficiencies of many buildings, which represent one of the biggest energy problems in the world.

Addressing a Major Environmental Problem

According to the CGBC, existing buildings in the United States are responsible for more than 40 percent of the country’s energy consumption. Furthermore, homeowners are spending more than $230 billion annually for heating, cooling and power. Retrofitting existing structures can have a massive impact on this waste while also making a huge difference in the carbon emissions from the United States.

Transforming One Building at a Time

To kick off its challenge, the HouseZero Project will start with a mid-1920s stick-built home in Cambridge that requires air conditioning in the summer and heaters in the winter. The goal is to better connect the home with the outdoors in order to take advantage of natural sources of heating, cooling and light. Since the wooden building is located in a historic district, it will present further challenges in that changes to the exterior are heavily regulated.

The main energy-saving feature proposed in the design involves developing geothermal wells that can draw up underground heat or help cool the building. Other proposed features include a concrete slap to function as a thermal mass to soak up heat during the winter, a solar vent and triple-glazed windows to light up the home while keeping the heat inside during the winter. Plans also call for installing a series of monitors and sensors to control and conduct windows, vents and the circulation systems. Ultimately, the goal is to make the building so efficient that the energy generated by the solar panel on the roof will almost be secondary.

In addition to being energy-efficient, the house will also be refurbished to create a healthier space for students, researchers and faculty. This will include opening the space to the outdoors, allowing increased airflow and sunlight.

The plans and designs for the home were developed after years of research by CGBC that has been overseen by the multinational architecture firm Snohetta. The project is just getting started with no budget estimate yet, but the department has moved out of the building to temporary workspaces in preparation for the upcoming changes. Once the project is complete, the team plans to release a detailed budget, an energy audit and plans to show how homeowners could accomplish similar changes.

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