Harvard Studying How to Improve Upon Net-Zero

Originally published by: Builder OnlineDecember 5, 2018

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The Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities (CGBC) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) has completed an ambitious effort to retrofit a 1924 home in Cambridge, Mass., into a living laboratory that will serve as the organization's headquarters. Dubbed HouseZero, the energy-positive prototype for ultra-efficient architecture aims to demonstrate how existing structures can be modified to consume less energy.

Designed by renowned Norewegian firm Snøhetta as lead architect in collaboration with engineer Skanska Teknikk Norway, HouseZero's concepts are driven by radical performance goals, including nearly zero energy for heating and cooling, zero electric lighting during daytime, operating with 100% natural ventilation, and producing zero carbon emissions. Over its lifetime, the structure is intended to produce more energy than was used to renovate and operate it.

CGBC will also leverage HouseZero as a research tool, drawing data from hundreds of sensors embedded within each component of the home that monitor its performance. According to the university, this sensory data will also provide Harvard’s researchers with an unprecedented understanding of complex building behavior. In turn, the data will fuel research involving computational simulation, helping the CGBC develop new systems and data-driven learning algorithms that promote energy-efficiency, health, and sustainability.

“HouseZero’s flexible, data-driven infrastructure will allow us to further research that demystifies building behavior, and design the next generation of ultra-efficient structures,” says Ali Malkawi, founding director of the Harvard Center for Green Buildings and Cities and the creator and leader of the HouseZero project. “By creating both a prototype and an infrastructure for long-term research, we hope to raise interest in ultra-efficient retrofits and inspire substantial shifts in the design and operation of buildings.”

HouseZero's big-picture, prototype goal is to address one of the biggest energy problems in the world today—inefficient existing buildings. Harvard research has found that the U.S. building stock is responsible for around 40% of energy consumption, with housing claiming nearly a quarter of that use. Annually, property owners spend upwards of $230 billion to heat, cool, and power some 113.6 million homes. Addressing the inefficiencies locked into this problematic building stock offers opportunity for curbing its impact on climate change, and HouseZero's strategies could potentially create the blueprint for reducing the average American household's footprint.

The building is designed to continuously adjust itself to reach thermal comfort for its occupants. It combines innovative technologies such as software and sensor arrays with established architectural solutions, such as solar vents, concrete slabs that store thermal energy, and natural ventilation to automatically open and close windows to maintain a quality internal environment throughout the year. Rather than tightly sealing the building, the envelope and the materials that make up HouseZero were designed to interact with the seasons and the exterior environment in a more natural way.