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Super-Energy-Efficient Houses Offer Free-Market Choice to Save Money, Homes and Lives WITHOUT Regulation or Fossil-Fuel Industry Resistance



Along with regulating carbon emissions to end climate change, we can also be selling the public on the advantages of energy efficiency and renewable sources.  For example, electric vehicles have fewer moving parts, require less maintenance, need no explosive fuel, perform better, and will soon cost no more to buy, besides emitting no greenhouse gases. Once we accept this, the choice is ours to replace all of our automobiles with electric vehicles, potentially saving thousands of dollars in fuel and maintenance each year while also helping to clean the air.

In the homebuilding industry it will take a little longer, since we don't trade houses quite as often, but each new house is unique and can be built as energy-efficient and structurally sound as we want from day one, provided we use the right technology.  But there's the rub:  Very few homebuyers or builders know that much about the other technologies available, and even fewer understand the reasons for change.

The fossil fuel industry and its politicians have a financial reason to block our boycotting of coal, oil and natural gas, but the only reason we have is that it might leave us with an energy shortage. But with renewables growing at a faster rate than power plants are closing, it's not that big a risk, and if we can cut our energy use in the meantime, we can eliminate that risk altogether, with power to spare.

Our plan to build a demonstration house does that and more! First, it will prove how homes can affordably be built efficient enough to need no heating or cooling energy at all, cutting the power-grid load with each new home. Second, it will show how much we can save on utility costs. Third, it will provide classroom space to teach these better building practices to homeowners and contractors, spreading the idea even faster. And the fourth and biggest benefit of all: it will also make these homes strong enough to protect us and our families from the severe weather and destructive forces of climate change.

What actions do you propose?

In a perfect world there would be no need to burn fossil fuels, since we get enough energy from the sun to supply all the heat and power we would ever need, whether by direct solar, geothermal, or wind energy. But since we've grown dependent on them, burning coal, oil, gas, or even bio-fuels for energy has become a necessary evil, along with all the health, safety and environmental risks that accompany their production, storage, transportation and combustion.

Some people may still think that our fossil fuel addiction is not the cause of global warming, climate change, and the resulting extreme weather, despite the evidence to the contrary presented by every true climate scientist on earth. But there can be no doubt that these fuels do result in innumerable spills, fires and explosions that cause thousands of deaths or injuries each year, as well as billions of dollars in property damage. Or that the search for and acquisition of these fuels are getting more expensive as easy-to-reach deposits run dry, raising fuel prices while (remarkably) earning ever-higher profits for the fossil-fuel industry.

So almost everyone agrees that we need to end our dependence on fossil fuels (even if they're not completely on board with Anthropologic Global Warming), and find other sources of energy to maintain and improve our quality of life. Clean, safe renewable energy is the only choice, and it is slowly gaining ground as more funding is invested and administrative and grassroots action takes hold. Unfortunately, these actions result in resistance from the fossil-fuel industry and their political allies, arguing that we can't afford to reduce our energy supply while demand is so high.

This proposal offers an end to this stalemate, outflanking the energy industry and giving renewables time to become the dominant source while cutting our energy needs. Weatherizing our existing homes or building new ones to be super-efficient will not only reduce energy bills, but will also force the fossil-fuel industry to cut back on production and carbon emissions.

Our buildings are responsible for about 40% of the total energy we use and carbon we emit, and our residences account for most of that. At the same time, the cheapest, safest and longest-lasting energy is the kind we will never use, so improving our homes' efficiency is the best action we can take, reducing both fossil-fuel use now and the number of solar panels or wind turbines we'll need to buy in the future. It would also improve our economy and employment situation, putting thousands or millions to work building or weatherizing energy-efficient homes. And finally, it would introduce the public to a much better, stronger and simpler way to build, maintain and afford a home.

Home building needs to keep up with the times, despite builders' resistance to change. Practically all American homes built today use wood frame construction, which is inherently susceptible to fire, mold, insect infestation, and severe storms that are constantly increasing in number and intensity. And as more trees are harvested to feed this market, only younger, weaker stock remains, making newer homes even less durable, while also adding to deforestation. In June of 2012, the current crop of Southern Pine 2x4's were downgraded in bending, tension and compression strength by an average of 30%, moving the species from the top to the bottom of preferred wood building materials. All the other species are expected to follow suit, forcing builders to use even more wood, raising both material and labor costs.

How long a house lasts depends on a lot of things. Some homes that were built 100+ years ago are still standing, while many that were built in the last 30 haven't lasted as long as their first mortgage, mostly because of the way they were not built to withstand the the effects of time and extreme weather disasters, which are destroying thousands of homes each year.

Introducing SuperHome construction may not change the home building industry overnight, but it will at least plant the idea in the minds of the public, hopefully with the same enthusiastic response we've gotten from the local public so far, and convince them to build their next house this way.

This idea and these practices are not new - many are several decades old, starting with the introduction of the passive house concept in 1969. Since then, others have been added, such as thermal mass, passive solar and geothermal, hydronic radiant heat, thermal air induction, heat-reflective surfaces and green roofs. By combining the advantages of each, building a true zero-energy and zero-carbon structure becomes easier, so that now it should be possible to build a house that needs no generated energy to heat or cool it, either on-site or remotely.

Comparing the basic building methods and materials, the exterior wall of a house is normally built with wood studs, sheets of plywood or OSB, a moisture barrier, and a layer of insulation (usually with about an R12 rating), before being enclosed between siding and drywall.  But by using EPS-Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF) with about an R-40 rating and filled with rebar and cement, a stronger, more airtight and better-insulated passive building envelope results, while replacing all the fore-mentioned materials between the siding and drywall.  These new materials would cost less and need less labor, saving both money and time.

Taking this idea to its logical conclusion, we can design buildings where none of the structural components are made of wood, replaced instead with concrete, steel and EPS. This will add more structural integrity than with any other building material, a necessity that is becoming more important as weather gets more severe and less predictable.

So this is how the first SuperHome Demonstration and Education Center will be built:  Stacking and filling ICF blocks from the basement foundation all the way up to the roof line, and topping it with steel-wrapped EPS Structural Insulated Panels and metal roofing that will reflect heat instead of absorbing it. Cathedral ceilings can easily replace attics, making them a well-insulated and air-sealed part of conditioned space, while the stack effect will force warm, stale air to escape through operable skylights above. This combination would allow for passive geothermal heating and cooling to spread throughout the house like the constant temperature in a basement, while avoiding heat buildup. With a baseline temperature of about 60 degrees all year long, just a little passive heat would be needed to get to a comfortable level, in this case in the form of a solar water heater and radiant-heat tubing in the concrete-over-EPS floors. There would be no need for a normal furnace or air-conditioner, which usually accounts for 35-45% of a home's utility bill, but an energy recovery ventilator can also supply fresh air. Well-placed windows and skylights would provide passive lighting, and whatever additional light needed would be provided by LED fixtures and reflective surfaces, saving another 15-20%. Also, multi-purpose rooms will be larger and better-connected, keeping air-sharing at a maximum.

There are several good building materials out there, but when planned and used properly, ICF can result in a house that will meet or exceed any building standard, including LEED, Green Globes, NGBS or Passive House. Incorporating the benefits of passive house, thermal mass, super-insulation, passive geothermal and thermal continuity without thermal bridging, we chose it as the best. To guarantee air-tightness, a blower door test will be conducted on a regular basis during the final stages of construction and upon completion, with an ACH50 of 0.5 less. Also, insulating the concrete causes it to cure more slowly, increasing compressive and shear strength, and extra rebar will also help avoid possible earthquake damage.

Regarding the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of ICF versus timber frame, the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub's report titled Methods, Impacts, and Opportunities in the Concrete Building Life Cycle states that the LCA of ICF homes is the same as the best-insulated wood frame houses, and even better if the building lasts longer than sixty years, or uses either fly ash (PFA) or granulated blast furnace slag (GGBFS) mixed in a one-to-one ratio with the Portland cement before it is poured into the forms.

Sustainable forestry is admirable, but no forestry is even better. Yes, trees sequester carbon during their lives, but that ends when they are harvested for construction, and the stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere when the wood is burned or sent to a landfill. Concrete may be heat- and carbon-intensive during its manufacture, but it can last hundreds of years, and still be recycled or disposed of without releasing anything. Still, we are continually searching for a low-heat/carbon alternative to Portland cement.

The possibility of overheating such a low-energy structure will be addressed by a computerized indoor climate management system, gently adjusting hot water flow from the rooftop panels through a storage tank and into the radiant tubing in the floors. At the same time, it can open or close the operable and shaded south-facing skylights to control solar exposure and release overheated air using the stack effect, all while monitoring temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, VOC's and dust to control Energy Recovery Ventilators and/or exhaust fans.

Hot and cold water efficiency will be maximized by placing the kitchen and baths close to one another and the solar water heater to avoid long heat- and water-wasting pipe runs, saving another 10-20% of total energy used. If local codes allow, all wastewater from showers and laundry will be collected and re-used in toilets, and roof runoff will be captured and stored for lawn irrigation. Altogether, water use could be cut by about 50%.

Even the home appliances will be chosen for their efficiency, and all will be at least Energy Star compliant. Going even further, the kitchen will have an induction cooktop that's faster, uses less energy and produces no heat except inside the stainless steel or cast iron cookware. All light-duty baking will be done in a small, fast countertop infrared oven instead of the high-energy convection oven, which will only be used for larger events. And laundry will be done in one combination washer and dryer unit that uses less energy and needs no dryer vent or anyone to transfer the clothes from the washer to the dryer. None of these appliances will need a 220-volt power source, cutting energy use by 50-90%. And finally, there will be no gas appliances, or even a gas line to the facility, eliminating not only the expense, but also the risk of gas leaks, fires or explosions.

Altogether, total HVAC energy could be cut somewhere between 75 and 95% of what's now considered average. Whatever is left to run other appliances and lights could easily be supplied by a few solar panels or a small wind turbine, and with battery technology progressing as fast as it is, it wouldn't matter if the house was on the grid or not.

During construction, the site will somewhat resemble an Extreme Home Makeover episode, welcoming media coverage and spectators. A time-lapse video documentary is planned, with copies available to every donor, and we're hoping to continue this theme as future private residences are built, especially when they are the result of a fundraiser for homeless victims of weather disasters, making their new home tornado- or hurricane-proof.

Although the SuperHome Demonstration and Education Center will be larger than an average home due to classroom and office space, we have -or will create- plans for any size or style of house, apartment building, or even homeless shelter, according to need and budget.


Who will take these actions?

Better Building Institute is a non-profit team of volunteers and stakeholders consisting of energy auditors and consultants, architects, engineers, builders, material vendors, labor unions, climate activists and prospective homeowners who are willing to donate their materials, money or time to help build this facility and educate the public about sustainable zero-energy construction, with the final goal to totally end home fossil fuel emissions and climate change. We welcome anyone who'd like to help, for whatever reason.

Many of our team members will likely continue their work as they become teachers and consultants themselves, spreading the SuperHome ideas and technologies wherever they're wanted or needed.  And once the public has had a chance to see and experience them, we expect to start a whole new generation of SuperHomes, as more builders discover they have to adopt these practices to stay in business.

A Personal Note:  My name is Don Dieckmann, and I am the CEO and founder of Better Building Institute. I have been an environmentalist and a student of architectural and electronics engineering since high school. After retiring from my first career in 2000, I became a home inspector, energy auditor/consultant, weatherization instructor, and climate activist. While recovering from transplant surgery in 2006, I decided I needed to do more and founded BBI, to take what I've learned to the people to help them decide if they want to save their money, homes, families and the planet.

There won't be a second retirement.

Where will these actions be taken?

The first SuperHome demonstration facility will be built in the St. Louis metropolitan area, but we expect that there will be a need for more across the U.S., or even around the world.  A local building site is yet to be selected, but the plan is to be on or close to a higher-education campus to blend in with its architectural/energy curriculums.

We have already received interest in similar future buildings on all three coasts, especially where severe weather has already destroyed homes and lives, like New Jersey, New York, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Florida and Alabama. We will be happy to travel anywhere as advisors, working with local groups who are more familiar with their environmental, economic and political situations.

How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?

Ideally, the goal is to build each new house efficient enough to totally eliminate carbon emissions due to heating, cooling and lighting efficiency improvements, both on-site and at the utility source. But realistically a target of 75 to 90 percent should be possible, before any renewables are introduced to the mix.  With almost no emissions, there won't be anything to sequester.

As our idea gains popularity across the country and around the world, we hope to see an end in home carbon emissions by the end of the century, and at least 25% by 2050. In non-residential situations, results will vary according to building use and occupancy.

What are other key benefits?

One big advantage of this proposal is that it does not depend on government regulation, nor is it able to be blocked by the fossil-fuel industry. Once the public is made aware of all the benefits besides reducing carbon emissions, it will become a market-based choice that cannot be debated or stopped by the energy industry or politicians. Everyone will want a home that has practically no energy bills, is always healthy and comfortable, and will not be destroyed by increasingly severe weather.

At the same time, the reduction in fossil fuel energy demand and use will mean fewer man-made disasters, such as oil train explosions, pipeline ruptures, off-shore oil spills, refinery fires, fracking pollution and earthquakes, and coal mine accidents and sludge releases.

What are the proposal’s costs?

The only costs to build the demonstration house will be:

1) Acquiring the site: Depends on the location, but negotiations with local community colleges are in progress for a no-cost lease with eventual donation of the facility to the college when it has outlived its usefulness (once all new homes are SuperHomes).

2) Building and furnishing the facility:  A rough estimate would be about $400,000 if we have to fund it ourselves. But we currently have promises of free materials and products from many of our stakeholders, since they recognize the advantage of demonstrating their product to a large, pre-qualified audience in a permanent venue. We expect these donations to increase as more stakeholders are recruited. Likewise, practically all necessary labor has been promised by local union halls and other interested parties, mainly so they can learn more about the methods and materials we plan on using. More are welcome, even if it's to simply watch and learn.

3) Advertising and media:  We have been promised by media companies wanting to donate their services, either free or paid by the sale of DVDs and books.

So the total cost is unknown at this time. Unfortunately, our non-profit status makes us ineligible for normal consumer incentives and tax advantages, but added exposure here and through our other channels may still attract grantors. We are also preparing a crowdfunding campaign on

The only negative side effect we foresee is using energy- and carbon- intensive Portland cement. As our proposal deadline approaches, we are researching a new discovery that supposedly requires no heat to manufacture.

A Note on SuperHome Affordability:  We estimate the cost to build a SuperHome to be slightly more than a similar stick-built house, a point we hope to prove with this project. After subtracting the savings in utilities, insurance, Energy-Efficient Mortgages and possible income and property tax incentives, monthly payments could be considerably less than normal.

Time line

The first step will be to build the first SuperHome Demonstration and Education Center in the St. Louis area, which we expect will take about 3-6 months, after all funding and material donations are in place.

Once the facility is completed and operational, we will document all energy use and utility costs, and try to record emission amounts, as the facility is used as our office, classroom and a manager's residence. It will also serve as a meeting and presentation facility for environmental groups, hosting events for Sierra Club, the Climate Reality Project, Citizen's Climate Lobby, and many others, of which many of our team are members. This will continue until the facility outlives its current usefulness, at which time it will be donated to the educational institution with which we will be partnering.

If all we do is spread the SuperHome idea and help homeowners decrease their energy bills, we will feel we have accomplished something. But we fully expect this idea to spread, and to hear from other parts of the country and planet asking for our help in building more facilities like this one in their region. If this idea gains enough of a following, we may see a significant reduction in greenhouse gases in a matter of years and, combined with all the other efforts, an end to fossil fuel use by sometime in the latter half-century.

Related proposals

None that we know of, but we're still looking.


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