The Edge of Innovation

It is a unique privilege to be able to witness a fundamental change in how we view our community, our industry, or even the world around us.  Standing at the edge of a major shift in the current way of thinking or doing things can be unnerving, but also exhilarating, filled with anticipation of exciting new possibilities.  For those who were paying attention, September 2014 offered the building industry front-row seats to one of these changes.

These beautiful crystal awards were presented to the nation’s leading builders.

Newport attended the Energy & Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA) Conference and Expo in St. Louis, and supported the U.S. Department of Energy in holding the second annual Housing Innovation Awards.  The awards recognize leading innovators in the building and home performance industries, seeking to promote truly exceptional achievements in transforming how we build and improve homes.  The EEBA conference, which gathers industry, advocacy, and educational leaders to exhibit, present, and discuss cutting-edge building science technologies and approaches, offered a prime venue for the awards.

The bars represent the difference between a ZERO home, an EnergyStar home, and a code built home.

Builders who participate in the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home program, who are eligible to apply for the Housing Innovation Awards, are driving a major change to the building industry.  The program, which pushes builders to test the limits of energy efficiency – while also adding innovations to achieve leading levels of performance in comfort, quality, durability, and health – allows builders to market their innovative successes using the voice of the Department of Energy to lend credibility to their accomplishments.

Although builders have achieved this level of performance in homes in the past, what makes this time so important is the wide variation in the size and type of builder participating, and the level of commitment to the program.  This year’s awards recognized 7 production builders including a national builder, builders who are building over 100 of these homes in a year, and builders who have incorporated the value message of Zero Energy Ready Homes into all of their marketing and sales practices.  Also receiving awards were custom builders around the country whose customers demand this level of excellence, and affordable builders including two Habitat for Humanity chapters and a HUD-code Manufactured Home.  The accessibility of this program to achieve such excellence in performance while appealing to luxury home builders, small and large production builders, and builders working with the tightest possible budgets, is unprecedented.  Consider that these builders are offering homes with minimal utility bills, while providing healthy indoor air, thermal comfort, rapid hot water delivery, and high levels of quality and durability through enhanced inspection processes – most at an affordable or market rate price point.

Joe Nebbia, Newport Partners, takes in the sights of St. Louis

St. Louis provided a fitting location to honor these builders who are not only changing how they build homes, but pioneering the way forward to a time when consumers will demand nothing less of their homes.  Just as the immense St. Louis Arch stands as a reminder of how pioneers fearlessly led the way to redefining America and its reach, these builders are redefining a new normal way to build.

As a buildings research and consulting firm focused on improving how we build, Newport often gets to witness or be a part of shifts in the building industry.  From conducting primary and unique research establishing the national average cost of residential sprinklers, to assisting manufacturers in understanding consumer attitudes toward new technologies, to trailblazing methods for improving code compliance, to designing and implementing industry-changing programs like the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home, Newport has been a major player with its finger on the pulse of the industry.  On September 23rd, 2014 at the Housing Innovation Awards, we were honored to help celebrate builders making their mark on the industry.  It felt like standing at the gateway to housing innovation, where challenges are certain, but possibilities are endless.  Watch what these builders are doing.  If you don’t, you might find that the building industry has moved on without you.

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Small Size Big Power

Can you even imagine your life without electricity?    I mean really without it…not just a power outage for a couple hours.  Our lights, air conditioning, microwaves, and big screen televisions all require it.   Our cell phones need to be plugged into outlets and sometimes even our cars.  Needless to say, electricity is an essential part of our lives.  When Benjamin Franklin flew that kite, the whole world changed.

Most of the homes in the United States get their electricity from their local, state or regional utility companies, while a small (but growing) segment of the population acquires their electrical needs through alternative methods such as generators, solar, or wind turbines.  Advancements in technology and scientific R&D continue to look into new ways for producing electricity in efficient and sustainable ways.  Fuel cells are one of these technologies that could possibly change the residential electric market in the near future.

Fuel cells are a stationery/portable form of power production that creates clean, energy efficient electricity. The process uses hydrogen and oxygen that produces water as a by-product.  The basic fuel cell consists of thin ceramic materials sandwiched together multiple times inside of a sealed container. The size of a fuel cell will determine how much electricity it can produce.  Currently small scale fuel cells are successfully being used in forklifts and other small machinery.

On a larger scale companies like Dominion Bridgeport Fuel Cell located in Bridgeport, CT have begun using fuel cells to provide electricity to the grid as of Dec. 27, 2013.  They are currently producing 14.9 megawatts of electricity using an electro-chemical process that efficiently converts natural gas into electricity. To put that into perspective one megawatt can power 1,000 homes.

Recently, General Electric opened up a new facility in Malta, NY to tackle the issue of

This fuel cell stack from GE is capable of powering up to 6 homes.

powering homes with fuel cells. One system they currently are working on consists of 60 fuel cells producing 6 kilowatts that can provide power to six homes. The goal of the pilot facility is to replicate these fuel cells making them a realistic, low cost option for consumers.  The research is also helping to improve the efficiency of the fuel cell, which is currently rated at 65%.  While there is still much to learn and room for improvement, the future looks bright for fuel cells.

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Energy Savings Strips

With all the different electronic devices we need today, the use of power strips has become commonplace in our homes and offices.  Often we need many of these devices to be powered in one small area.  You probably have one behind your entertainment center or under your desk at the office.  These power strips are critical for many of us, but one of the downsides to them is the “vampire” or “phantom” energy loss associated with them.  Even when our devices and appliances are not being actively used, they are still drawing power and enter a standby mode to be available for instant use when we need them.

Sure, a standard power strip will completely shut off power to these devices when it is turned off.  But what about when you need your cable box on but not the DVD player or surround sound?  “Smart” thermostats are now available that help save energy by shutting down the power to devices that enter standby mode, while still providing power to those which are in use.  The “smart” power strip provides the same basic function, supplying power to multiple devices, but with the ability to shut off power to devices can significantly reduce our energy consumption and energy bills.  Since it’s not always practical to unplug your devices or shut down power to all of them at once, “smart” power strips can effectively do so for you.

There are three main types of “smart” power strips:

  1. Timer-equipped:  These power strips have outlets that are controlled by programmable timers. Devices plugged into them can be scheduled to automatically turn off or on at designated times of day or night.
  2. Occupancy sensing:  Occupancy sensing power strips have outlets that are controlled by a motion detector. Devices plugged into them can automatically turn off or on in response to your physical presence, or after a user-defined period of time elapses (anywhere from 30 seconds to 60 minutes).
  3. Current sensing:  These power strips can automatically turn several outlets on or off when they detect that a device enters a low powered mode, is turned off, or is turned on.  This is handy when you are charging your cell phone or tablet.

More advanced “smart” power strips are capable of connecting to the internet so that you can control devices remotely.  A standard power strip ranges from $5-$20, while a “smart” power strips can cost between $20-$50 depending on your needs.  Many local utilities offer discounts and/or rebates for these products so it is worth looking into.

For more information about these products visit the following links:

http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-tech/sustainable/smart-power-strip.htm

https://www.energystar.gov/index.cfm?c=power_mgt.pr_power_mgt_more_tips

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Building Materials of the Future

Our world is driven by innovation.  Advancements in technology occur all the time.  Remember that old Best Buy commercial that advertised the company’s “Buy Back” program?  It showed all of these people with their new cell phones, TVs, laptops, etc.  looking at a newly released upgrade of that product.  It seems every time we turn around something new is on the market.  Most of these are minor upgrades and advancements, basically just adding a few new “cool” features and integrating existing technologies.  However, every once and while something comes along that truly changes the game, whatever that game may be.  I know it has been quite some time, but remember when the first iPod came out?  Game changer.  Go back even further, how about the microwave?  Game changer.  These innovations took things already existed (portable music players, ovens) and made them better, faster, more user-friendly, not to mention cooler.

The world of building technologies works the same way.  We are constantly trying to improve what we currently have (building materials, construction methods, etc.) and leverage new advancements in technology and science to make them better.  Browsing through my morning e-mails while sipping my coffee (IMO the Keurig is a game changer) I came across a list of new building materials that have the potential to significant impact the building industry.  Most of the time these lists include those minor upgrades that I hinted at earlier.  Wait, I can now get my iPhone in blue?  But these ones were different.  The complete list can be found here but I will share with you a brief synopsis of some of my favorites.

“Sensing Skin” Paint

Can your paint tell you where your building is cracking?  Didn’t think so.  A team of researchers from NC State and the University of Eastern Finland are in the process of developing a conductive paint that can actually find areas of a building structure that are being compromised. This type of paint and system could be invaluable for a wide variety of structures, particular those in earthquake zones.  The potential to find structural damage before a potential disaster or accident would greatly increase the safety of the buildings using this product.

Invisible Solar Cells

Photovoltaic panels on windows are nothing new.  This type of technology has been around for some time, although all PV technology has come a long way in recent years.  However, typically if you are in a room with PV panels on the windows you know it.  While a traditional solar panel collects sunlight using dark silicon cells, this new technology actually channels specific wavelengths of light (those which are not visible to the human eye) onto a heat engine which produces electricity.  This type of technology could be integrated into tall buildings with a lot of windows or even on smaller devices such as cell phones, tablets, and e-readers.

Smart Bricks

Real-life Legos? Sounds like an architect’s dream doesn’t it?  Imagine all those buildings and structures you built as a kid and how simple and easy they were to construct.  That simplicity and ease of construction is exactly what a company Kite Bricks is aiming to do with a new building material called Smart Bricks.  Essentially, these bricks are Legos that can be used to build structures we can work, play and live in.  While the company is still raising funds to actually create the product, the future construction of buildings might look very similar to when you were in grade school.

Phone Charging Sounds

If your phone runs out of battery as often as mine does you will find this technology particularly interesting.  Through advanced technology sound can transmit energy, as many of you are already know.  A company called uBeam is developing ways to take that energy-generating technology and integrate it into building materials.  The process involves embedding a transmitter into some sort of material (currently uBeam is focusing on wallpaper and wall art).  That transmitter takes electricity and converts it into ultrasonic sound which can then be picked up by your mobile device.  Your device will then convert that sound back into energy to keep it charged.  I can never find my phone charger anyways!

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The Earlier the Better for HERS Ratings

Working with builders early in the design process can pay great dividends for all parties involved.  For ENERGY STAR or any above code homes program, the earlier a HERS Rater can get involved the better.  One of the perks to being involved early in the design process is the opportunity to run a computer simulation on the home to project the efficiency levels of the home and to help the builder and homeowner identify any potential energy savings measures.  This allows all parties to share their knowledge and work together to design the most energy efficient home possible within budget.   

Newport Ventures is currently working with Under the Sun Builders to run modeling simulations for a new home being constructed.  The home will be 100% electric with the potential for solar panels to be added in the future.  Both the builders and the homeowners place a high level of importance on the ability to build the home as energy efficient as possible.    Being involved in the early stages in the project has allowed us to make adjustments to the original house design, making it more energy efficient than first anticipated.  Using REM Rate software Newport was able to simulate different insulation levels, heating, cooling, and water heating along with other systems of the home and provide the builder/homeowner with relevant information that helped guide them to making decisions regarding upgrading the original plan.

Newport Ventures will be completing an ENERGY STAR Version 3 rating on the home and possibly Version 3.1.  It is possible that this home will be near Net Zero ready when construction is complete.     Currently the foundation is going in and the builders are working closely with Newport to make sure that the home is built to meet or surpass the anticipated results that the modeling software showed many months ago.   A blog is currently being kept by the builder documenting the entire building process along with photo documenting the progress.  You can view it here.  Stay tuned for more updates!

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We Got It Good…But Do We Know It?

Living in the United States is a privilege.  The majority of Americans have access to life’s essential needs (food, water, and shelter) as well as many additional wants.  That cup of coffee you are sipping on reading this, the car you drove to work, the granola bar you will have for a snack before lunch…these are all bonuses. In many areas of the world they only dream of having these things.  We are also lucky when it comes to housing.  Many of us are fortunate enough to live in high quality homes where we feel safe and secure, have a sense of privacy and personal space.  But are we getting to use to this life of luxury?

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States ranks number 1 on a 180 country list in terms of “housing conditions and spending” as part of their Better Life Index survey.  The survey uses indicators including housing expenditure, rooms per person, and dwellings with basic facilities.  The US ranks 5th in regards to disposable income spent on housing (19% compared to the 21% average for the whole study).  Americans spend less on nicer dwellings, ranking 4th in terms of basic facilities (99.9% of dwellings in the US have private indoor flushing toilets, slight higher than the 97.9% of the whole).  Lastly, with an average of 2.3 persons per room, the US again comes in at 5th out of the 180 countries included in the survey to this point.  The combination of these indicators puts the US at the top of the Housing category in the Better Life survey.

So what is not to like?  Apparently something because Americans actually rank their own satisfaction (86%) with housing lower than the OECD average of 87%.   By comparison, nations such as Germany, Spain, Ireland, and Belgium have expressed satisfaction rates of more than 93%.  Perhaps we are taking housing for granted, or maybe we just don’t care as much.  Out of the 11 topics included in the Better Life Index survey, housing ranked 9 in terms of relative importance to Americans (“life satisfaction ranks number 1).

Some other highlights from the survey include:

  • 87% of Americans are satisfied with the quality of water, above the 84% OECD average
  • Air pollution levels (17.8) are below the OECD average of 20.1 micrograms/ m3 and the 20 micrograms/m3 guideline limit set by the World Health Organization
  • Average household disposable income is $39,531 much higher than the OECD average of $23,938

To contribute to the survey and view more results click here.

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Where Does Your State Rank In Total Energy Cost?

Now that we are well into July and heading towards August many Americans find themselves torn between cranking up their air conditioners, which brings higher utility bills, and sweating through the dog days of summer.  While none of us like to pay more, sometimes getting off our wallets is the only thing we can do to keep sane in what are typically the hottest months of the year.  There have been a number of recent reports which rank US states for things such as energy efficiency, average electrical consumption, and average energy prices.  These reports certainly are enlightening; however they tend to miss the boat on painting a complete picture of the household energy costs for Americans.

The average consumer in the US spends an estimated 7.1% of their total income on energy costs.   Using the most recent available US Census data, the average annual household income in the US was $51,371 in 2012.  That calculates to an average of $3,647 in energy costs for Americans….not exactly chump change.  To give us a more complete view of how our states rank in terms of energy costs, WalletHub (a personal online finance resource) recently completed a study to identify the most and least expensive states in the country.  Rather than rely simply on energy efficient efforts and rulemaking, or average consumption and price metrics, this study analyzes a number of metrics.

The six metrics used in the WalletHub study were:

  1. Average retail price of electricity ($/kWh)
  2. Average electricity consumption per consumer (kWh)
  3. Average natural gas prices ($/1,000 ft3)
  4. Natural gas consumption per consumer ($/1,000 ft3)
  5. Average fuel price ($/gallon)
  6. Fuel consumption per driver (gallons)

The equation used to determine the average monthly energy cost for each state was:

Average Monthly Consumption of Electricity x Average Retail Price of Electricity

+  Average Monthly Consumption of Natural Gas x Average Natural Gas Residential Prices

+  Average Fuel Price * (Average Monthly Vehicle Miles Traveled / Average Car Consumption / Number of Drivers)

=  Average Monthly Energy Bill Consumers Pay in Each State

The table below outlines the 5 most and least expensive states and their calculated average monthly energy bills:

 

Least Expensive

Most Expensive

State

Avg. Energy Bill/Month

State

Avg. Energy Bill/Month

Colorado

$301

Hawaii

$451

Washington

$302

Mississippi

$414

Montana

$305

Connecticut

$404

Rhode Island

$307

Georgia

$403

Nebraska

$312

Oklahoma

$401

Check out all the results to see where your state ranks by clicking here.   EcoBuilding Pulse also developed an interactive heat map from this study which can be found here.

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Building Genome Project: A Cost-Effective Approach to Energy Auditing

Retroficiency, an energy analytics start-up based in Boston, MA, is changing the game in regards to evaluating the energy consumption of our buildings. A major reason we have not begun to scratch the surface of these potential savings is due to the high price tag, time commitment, and level of difficulty it takes to evaluate a building for energy consumption using traditional methods. By leveraging new advancements in analytics, more available public building data, and the boom of cloud computing, the Building Genome Project is trimming a lot of the fat off of the energy auditing process.

The starting point for any energy evaluation is data, and with more and more data becoming publically available there is more opportunity for analysis. Retroficiency inputs this data into their Building Efficiency Intelligence (BEI) platform, which then creates energy models in minutes as opposed to days, weeks, or months. Several different variables such as lighting, HVAC, and building envelope specs are entered into the BEI software, which accounts for interactions amongst building systems and provides critical insight to how a building consumes energy, identify problem areas, and determine the most effective ways of improving efficiency levels. It will also evaluate how certain changes can impact the building’s energy efficiency by simulating equipment or operational changes and comparing them to current performance levels.

Building Genome Project: NYC

To show the effectiveness of their method, Retroficiency took on quite the challenge for their first target city in the Building Genome Project. New York City is no small task, but if the project can work there you can imagine it would work anywhere. Using publically available data and their BEI platform, the company was able to create energy models for over 30,000 commercial buildings in the city in just a few days. Three scenarios were run against the created models to better understand how certain retrofit efforts might impact NYC’s buildings.

Scenario 1: What if every building turned the thermostat up one degree in the summer and down one degree in the winter?

What seems like an amazing statistic, just one degree has the potential to save an incredible amount of energy when spread across the broad landscape of NYC’s buildings. Would you notice a 1 degree difference?
Scenario 2: What if every building with old windows installed new, efficient ones?
It’s well known that windows can have a significant impact on how energy efficient a building is. However, they can also be very expensive and disruptive, especially in a place such as NYC.

Scenario 3: What if every building with an oil boiler that burns #4 or #6 oil replaced it with a natural gas boiler?

While this represents the smallest number of buildings. Only 1% of all of NYC’s buildings burn  #4 or #6 oil. With that in mind, these estimates are actually very significant.

Retroficiency plans to expand the Building Genome Project across the country and enhance it’s models with supplemental data as it is available.  For more information on the project and on Retrofiency visit their website.

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Happy 4th of July!

Newport is proud to be a part of the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home Program team.  The following video shares the story of a disabled veteran in Garland, TX who had his home renovated to Zero Energy Ready Home certification.  Great story to start off a patriotic weekend!  Happy 4th!

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A Slight Detour in the LED Journey

I know it has been a while but these things never go as smoothly as anticipated.  The bad news, I still have not decided on my light fixtures, I just can’t seem to find the right ones.  The good news is that my journey through the lighting world has led me to a control system that I absolutely love and can’t wait to start using.  The system, Caséta Wireless by Lutron, is a wireless lighting system that allows you to have complete control of your lights from anywhere.  Sure there are plenty of systems that do this and more, however what sets this system apart is that I can install and I can afford it!  The whole system, which lists for a little over $1,000 for a typical 2,500 ft2 home can be installed in minutes.

The system is so simplistic that you think there is no possible way it could actually work.  There are three basic components to Caséta, an in-wall dimmer (which replaces your standard light switch), a plug-in lamp dimmer, and a remote control (charmingly named a Pico).  The whole package is so self-explanatory it is almost hard to not be able to use it.

  1. Replace your wall switches with the in-wall dimmers with your basic screw driver.
  2. Plug your lamp dimmer into an outlet and plug your lamp into the dimmer.
  3. Program your remote controls by holding down a button for up to 10 seconds.
  4. That’s it!

Your lights can now be dimmed via the remote control or directly from the in-wall or plug in dimmer.  You can set a “favorite” setting and have your lights come up or down to your preferred level in one touch.  Now you can turn your lights on from your spot on the couch, while lying in bed, or from your car.  No more getting out of bed to turn the lights off or walking into a dark home after work!

This is the simplest way of using this system, but Caséta does much more and almost gets easier as you go!   Lutron has a line of window shades that can also be programmed to work in conjunction with the lights and remote control.  They have also developed a bridge and app that will allow users to control their entire Caséta system via smartphone or tablet.  The app greatly increases your controllability with the system.  You can set multiple “favorites” for different areas of the home, time of day, or any specific mood lighting for a particular setting.  One touch on your smartphone and you are ready for movie night!  With the app and bridge you can turn your lights on or off no matter where you are. I forgot to turn lights off all the time when I leave for the gym in the morning, and now I will be able to check my phone and shut them off from the treadmill.   You can also set up your system to operate on a timing schedule, turning lights on to wake up in the morning and having them shut off during the day while nobody is home.  It makes saving energy so much easier!

My Caséta system has been ordered and once it gets in I will time how long it takes me to install it (mind you I am not the world’s best tech guru).  I’ll have more to report after I play around with it for a little while but for now I strongly encourage you to check out this product.  It’s simple, affordable, and works!

http://www.casetawireless.com/pages/Caseta.aspx

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