We Can Build Toward an Energy-Efficient Future, If We Want To

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Casa Iseami in Costa Rica.
Courtesy of Sergio PucciThe futuristic Casa Iseami in the jungle of Costa Rica is totally off the energy grid.
Whether you view the recent deal that President Obama brokered with China to cut greenhouse gas emissions as a long-overdue breakthrough or "irresponsible" and "expensive," here's a fact: We already have the cost-effective know-how to achieve its goals by changing the way we use energy in our homes -- and do it in style.

Under the agreement announced on Nov. 12, the United States would substantially cut emissions by 2025 (26 to 28 percent less than in 2005). One of the ways this can be done is by transforming our dependence on coal and oil to solar and wind power. About 40 percent of the energy used in this country is used to heat and cool buildings -- and we have the technological means to drastically reduce our dependence them for that.

Casa Iseami in Costa Rica
Courtesty of Sergio Pucci Casa Iseami's large exterior overhang allows natural light to pass through to the seating area below.
Many countries, particularly those in the European Union, already are working to meet their commitments to the Kyoto Protocol adopted in 1997. This means a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, a 20 percent increase in renewable energy and a 20 percent improvement in energy efficiency by 2020. It's becoming the norm for homes there to be built to meet these standards.

The rising cost of energy in many countries also motivates homeowners to build houses that are less reliant on fossil fuel. Some houses are built in locations where there's simply no access to fossil fuel, so must be designed to use less energy to operate or even become self-sufficient by creating energy.

My book, Prefabulous World, profiles some of the most energy efficient and "green" houses in 20 countries, including the United States. Most homeowners who live in very energy efficient houses report their energy bills are half to a fraction of that of their neighbors.

Jeff Armstrong, an architect and homeowner of a LEED Platinum house (see the slideshow below) in Ontario, Canada, reports his house consumes about half of the energy used by a similar-size house for space and water heating. Another very energy-efficient house, Casa Iseami (pictured above), built in the deep tropical jungle of Costa Rica, is totally off the grid.

Researching these homes was an opportunity to explore some of the innovative methods and materials being used to save energy and conserve resources in other countries. We can learn from%VIRTUAL-pullquote-Often people assume energy-efficient and prefab homes to be unattractive. But those conceptions couldn't be further from the truth.% those ingenious and creative technologies developed for these homes. The following are just a few of the methods and materials:

One of the most important ways to reduce the need for heating and cooling is to have very efficient insulation. One excellent example of a new technology is Aerogel that was used in a house in the Netherlands -- the Energy Neutral Residence. Aerogel insulation was developed for NASA and is one of the lowest density materials on earth but a highly effective insulator. It is four times more efficient than fiberglass or foam.

Yankee Barn Homes in the United States uses a polyisocyanurate insulation in their panels. It offers high R-value per inch and fire resistance. The Laurel Hollow house in East Hampton, New York. was built using these panels. This same insulation was used in The Morris Island House in Ontario, Canada. That house was certified LEED Platinum and showed to be quite airtight on a blower door test (1.5 ACH at 50 Pascals).

A house In Ebeltoft, Denmark -- Villa Langerkamp -- incorporates a "solar comb façade": a thin honeycomb-like pattern which passively helps to heat and cool the house. Several houses in the book, including this one, have retractable blinds, which can minimize heat gain in the summer and reduce the need for air conditioning.

The Elsternwick house in Melbourne, Australia, was built using a steel frame, structural insulated panels (or SIPs) and modular construction. The steel frame made the construction very strong, the SIPs made it very energy efficient and the modular construction allowed this house to be completed in just three weeks.

Concept Bio Architect Frèdèric Michel used a patented fabric on awnings on the south façade of his Evolutive Home, which absorbs and reflects 97 percent of the sun.

One of the most unique and interesting houses I found while researching this book is a house in Dobling, Austria, built like a solar tube. This house was built to passively maintain a comfortable interior environment for the occupants while being very energy efficient.

Often people assume energy-efficient and prefab homes to be unattractive. But those conceptions couldn't be further from the truth. As you can see in the photos below -- all of the houses I profile are prefab, very energy efficient, have healthy interior environments, use environmentally friendly materials and are still attractive. Most of the houses are architecturally designed and very well thought out, with consideration toward blending with the neighborhoods where they're located and the aesthetics of their owners.

The Future Is Now for These Energy-Efficient Homes
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We Can Build Toward an Energy-Efficient Future, If We Want To

The Elsternwick House was built by Modscape and is located in Melbourne, Australia. It was built using a steel frame, SIPs and modular construction.

Photo courtesy of Ben Johnson

Located in Ebeltoft, Denmark, Villa Langenkamp is a Passivhaus: Geothermal heating, a heat pump, retractable blinds and many other energy-saving aspects allow it to use 80 to 90 percent less energy to heat and cool than standard homes.
The house also had a new innovation -- a solar comb façade -- to also make it very energy efficient.

The Solar Tube house in Dobling, Austria, was designed by Driendl Architects using a hybrid prefabricated system. The house is built to function like a solar tube and is highly efficient.

Photo courtesy of Bruno Klomfar

The Evolutive House in Mouans-Sartoux, France, is a Passivhaus with many energy-saving aspects, including a patented fabric awning which absorbs and reflects 97 percent of the sun.

Photo courtesy of Concept Bio

The Morris Island House in Ontario, Canada, has a timber frame and panelized construction. Designed by Jeff Armstrong, it's LEED Platinum certified and highly efficient with many energy saving and green features.

Photo courtesy of Mathieu Girard

The Laurel Hollow House in East Hampton, New York, was built using a panelized system, which includes polyisocyanurate insulation -- creating a very well insulated house, vastly reducing energy costs.

Photo courtesy of Yankee Barn Homes

Casa Iseami is located in one of the most biodiverse places on Earth, 19 miles from the nearest town, Puerto Jimenez in Costa Rica. The house was designed by Robles Arquitectos and built using a prefabricated steel frame and structural insulated panels.

Photo courtesy of Sergio Pucci

The New Energy House in Padua, Italy, was part of CasaClima: A certified, a local program. Wood-wool insulation was used on this panelized house, a material not commonl in this country. The energy consumed by this house was 68.05 kWh/m2; typical houses in the area use approximately 250 to 300 kWh/m2.

Photo courtesy of Frederico Zattarin

All of the houses in this article are included in Prefabulous World: Energy-Efficient and Sustainable Homes around the Globe.

I hope that readers see how easy it is to build a beautiful house that requires less energy to operate and uses fewer resources. The world has a limited amount of resources available to us. If we squander them, we are hurting our children and our children's children. Reducing energy consumption in construction can have a significant effect on overall energy usage in this country. We have the knowledge and ability to reduce this number substantially. I hope anyone considering building a house in the future will use prefabricated methods and techniques and materials that reduce wastage and energy.

I have been so inspired by the houses in Prefabulous World; I hope readers will also be inspired to consider some of the methods, materials and systems in this book for their own homes.
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