The Net-Zero Energy Home

Depending on your market, green energy and energy-efficiency is one of those topics that may seem like second nature already. In other parts of the country, it may be less popular.  Still, with the rise of codes like the IgGG, the IECC, and additional state codes that are increasingly strict (and carry the force of law), the momentum is for builders who incorporate green building practices into their building process, product selection, and final product.


It’s clear that energy-efficient building can be practical and profitable; it’s easy to implement from knowledge and products that you are likely using today. Looking farther down the road, thanks to some current R&D we have been following, it may be even easier to build these greener homes in the near future.


Enter the net-zero home.

This test home may be a little impersonal, as far as completed homes go. There are no occupants, no car that pulls in the garage, no family dog running around in the backyard. That’s because this net-zero home is not a home in the traditional sense.  It’s more accurate to call it a LEED Platinum laboratory, and it’s manned by researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where they build and test concept homes, a.k.a. “Homes of the Future.”


“Homes of the future” is a phrase that can conjure images of the Jetsons and World Fair exhibits. There are definitely aspects of the net-zero home that fulfill that stereotype: in the test homes, software takes the place of occupants. Software activates the systems inside the home much as real people would, taking daily showers or turning on the TV for the length of a sitcom. To power the place, as you might expect, there are solar panels, and insulation plays a big role in creating the “net-zero” effect.


The windows are all triple-paned; plus, the home itself encased in a thick “thermal envelope,” including a rubber membrane wrapped around the home before roofing. In fact the insulation is so effective, air changes had to be upped to prevent VOCs from building up and making the home unsafe for its software “occupants.”


Today, research on the NIST Home of the Future is ongoing, and incremental improvements are being made to adjust to use patterns. Now that NIST has conquered heat loss through better insulation and gotten its energy from solar panels, the researchers’ next project is to tap latent heat in the soil. They’ll also experiment to bring down the price tag: if you built your own NIST home today, it would sell for $652,000—not exactly affordable for the average buyer, outside of certain cities on the coast.  (San Francisco, we’re looking at you.) But if the technology discoveries continue on their current pace and organizations like NIST integrate them into common building practices, Homes of the Future will soon consume 0% of the nation’s energy, instead of the 21% they consume today.