We’ve seen plenty of impressive net zero houses in the past, from the motion-controlled CHIP House in California to the budget-priced Sosoljip in South Korea. But one issue that seems predominant in most energy-neutral homes is that they typically take on a design that doesn’t suit many suburban areas. That may soon change though with the first Active House, which uses natural lighting and ventilation to reduce its energy consumption while still blending in with the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood.
The Active House is a prototype home sponsored by VELUX, a Danish company that designs products to encourage the use of natural lighting, particularly skylights and windows. The project was created to promote buildings that have a positive impact on the environment while providing a healthy and comfortable indoor climate for occupants. A handful of other prototype Active Houses following these same standards have also been constructed all over Europe.
Project leaders chose Webster Grove, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, as the building site for it’s first U.S. construction project because it’s an area that receives all climate extremes, from ice-cold winters to sweltering hot summers. If the house proves to be energy efficient in this location, the theory goes, it should work just as well in any other location in the United States.
Natural lighting features heavily in the Active House, with windows, skylights, and sun tunnels scattered throughout every room. The interior design also features mostly light-colored surfaces, openly-connected rooms, and glass partitions to make sure whole house can be clearly lit on most days. Electricity and hot water are mostly provided by solar power as well, though a natural gas system does act as a backup when needed.
Maintaining a comfortable temperature also plays a large part in conserving energy, which is why the Active House’s construction centers around natural ventilation and improved insulation. Windows that open are arranged in a straight path upwards, while the rest of the house is sealed airtight, maximizing the flow of fresh air inside. The outside walls also incorporate insulated panels and double-paned windows to reduce the amount of heat transfer, and the roof is covered in solar-reflective tiles to deflect sunlight and heat.
Best of all, most of the windows and blinds are rigged to an automated system to control the amount of heat, light, and fresh air that enters the home. Residents can even program them to open and close at certain times of the day, month, or even year, ensuring they’re using natural energy as much as possible. The house does still have heating and air conditioning equipment as well – all rated for high energy efficiency of course – but the house’s temperature-regulating construction should ensure they aren’t used as much.
Finally, the majority of the building materials are recyclable, and some were repurposed from a previous structure on the same site. Altogether, the Active House simultaneously meets or exceeds the requirements for the ANSI-700 National Green Building Standard, Energy Star, Builder’s Challenge, and Indoor Air and Water Sense Programs, among others.
Even with all its sustainable technology and architecture, it was very important to the designers that the Active House blend in perfectly with the surrounding neighborhood. The aesthetics of many net zero homes are usually influenced by energy efficiency above all else, which may lead to some unique designs, but also means they have to be constructed outside of a typical residential area. By constructing a house that fits in almost seamlessly with local architecture, the project leaders hope more areas will open up to the idea of incorporating net zero practices in future housing projects.
For all it’s green innovations though, what good is a house without someone living there? The Smith family – consisting of David, Thuy, and their daughter, Cameron – contacted the Active House project leaders when they decided to build a new home and worked closely with the designers on its layout. After almost a year of construction, they finally moved into their new home in late 2012 and will allow the University of Missouri’s Midwest Energy Efficiency Research Consortium to collect data on the house’s energy usage during their first year there.