Home & Garden

Family test-drives ‘home of the future’

The house where Susan O’Hara, Stuart Bennett and their 9-year-old twin daughters live is experimental – designed to leave no carbon footprint because it’s nearly 100 percent composed of materials from sustainable sources and powered by the sun.
The house where Susan O’Hara, Stuart Bennett and their 9-year-old twin daughters live is experimental – designed to leave no carbon footprint because it’s nearly 100 percent composed of materials from sustainable sources and powered by the sun. WASHINGTON POST

The house where Susan O’Hara, Stuart Bennett and their 9-year-old twin daughters live is experimental – designed to give researchers a way to fast-forward several years.

In the future the researchers envision, residences will leave no carbon footprint because they’re nearly 100 percent composed of materials from sustainable sources and powered by the sun. Electric cars will be the rule, not the exception.

The O’Hara-Bennett family home is a step in that evolution, provided by an unlikely manufacturer – Honda Motor Company.

Honda has developed sustainable communities in other countries. The postmodern house in Davis, Calif., is its first in America.

An aim of the project is to prepare for a time when sustainable houses and vehicles will be in much wider use and to study how that would affect the nation’s aging power grid.

Here’s what the house has that you won’t find in a subdivision near you:

▪ Reclaimed wood for all the trim and furniture, as well as reclaimed nails. The foundation and polished concrete floors contain pozzolan, which comes from volcanic ash and is used to reduce the amount of cement needed. Making Portland cement requires lots of heat, and thus produces a considerable amount of carbon dioxide.

▪ The same type of circadian-rhythm lighting that’s used on the International Space Station. It emits blue lights in the morning and orange light in the evening. The bedroom lighting produces a warm hue to help relax the family before going to sleep.

▪ A design centered on environmental protection and water preservation. Runoff water goes into a bioswale on the property, avoiding sewers. The collected runoff is used to water plants in the yard, saving fresh water in a drought-ravaged state.

▪ The house gets all its power from the sun, but remains connected to the grid. In a pinch, an electric car parked in their garage can power the house.

“We signed up for a year here and we’re really hoping they let us stay on, because we don’t think we can go back to a regular house,” says O’Hara, 49.

Honda’s long journey to sustainable home design started in 1946, when company founder Soichiro Honda got an idea about mounting a small engine onto a bicycle.

A demo house in Japan uses a small engine that runs on natural gas to generate its electricity. Heat produced by the engine is captured and used to warm the house. In international markets, the system is called “micro combined heat and power.” More than 130,000 units are in place in Japan, most of them made by Honda.

Now, Honda is seeking to push the sustainability movement much further. One of Honda’s requirements was that the subjects needed to use a vehicle on a regular basis. The project furnished O’Hara and Bennett with a fully electric four-door Honda Fit to drive.

“We already had the demo house in Japan and on this one we really wanted to focus on the energy management side of things, the vehicle side of things and, ‘How is it going to integrate with the house?’” says Michael Koenig, a mechanical engineer and project leader.

“The ability to manage and dispatch energy is of interest to Honda,” says Koenig. “We want to be part of the solution.”

The site is at the University of California at Davis’ West Village, which is the largest planned net-zero energy community in the United States.

The research-heavy community is supported by a private-public partnership that includes $7.5 million of grant money to study net-zero energy systems.

O’Hara and Bennett earned their stay at the home by answering a solicitation offered through the university, which is a supporter of the project, along with Pacific Gas and Electric.

They don’t pay rent but are charged a fee that “is way less than market rates for the area,” O’Hara says. The house is slated to remain occupied and observed for three years.

“We get a lot of people coming up to the door who don’t know the house isn’t open to the public, and they will come right in while we’re still in our bathrobes,” says Bennett, 45. “So it is kind of like living in a fishbowl.”

New technology, outdated systems

▪ The brain of the Honda house is the home energy management system. Its hardware and software pull power off the grid when needed, charge the car and house batteries, and send power back to the grid when the house produces a surplus. The system monitors where energy should go and which source should use it.

▪ Engineers are getting a real-time look at how the increased use of solar power can pose technological challenges to the nation’s antiquated energy infrastructure. Plug-in hybrid vehicles and fully electric vehicles affect the power grid, a system conceived in the 1800s to send power one way.

▪ As the number of grid-connected rooftop solar installations increases, it will become more important to have monitoring and control for two-way power flows, says Dan T. Ton, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy.

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