By Mike Nemeth
The Cleveland Museum of Natural History plans to build a house on its grounds that will be so well insulated, so weather tight and so efficient that it will need no furnace.
That's right, no furnace. And Cleveland can have some nasty, bone-chilling weather.
The house is of the "passive" variety, a movement gaining major steam in Europe and apparently here too. The superinsulated home boasts 18-inch walls, triple-pane and glazed windows and overall efficiency that should make it one of the museum's biggest attractions when the house exhibit opens for three months in June 2011.
"You can walk around barefoot in the middle of winter where there are no drafts, no cold spots," said David Beach, director of GreenCityBlueLake Institute, which is the center for sustainability at the museum, in a video on the official site. "And it's a wonderful place to live."
No doubt. But it's hardly the norm.
Buildings account for about half of global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. There's a big push nationally and worldwide to address that with retrofits, upgrades and better building practices through efforts like the U.S. Green Building Council's LEED building certification system, which was designed to improve energy savings, water efficiency and CO2 emissions reduction.
Adoption of more stringent building practices would make a big dent in greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.
But for consumers adding energy efficiency means lower energy bills. Way lower with a super-insulated house. For instance, my house was built in 1961 with 2-by-4 walls, single-pane windows and no insulation in the floors. I blew in a bunch more insulation in the ceiling, replaced the windows and upgraded the heating system to a 95 percent efficient furnace. My bills dropped like a rock.
My co-worker Sandy Nax lives in a 1990s vintage home with 2-by-six walls and stock double-pane windows. He's got a better design. Even so, his cooling costs in the summer sometimes exceed $500 a month. Mine's smaller, and it's cheaper.
Both of us would love to lower our bills. Like many who chose the newspaper profession, we got used to low pay and being frugal. We lived in pretty dicey places at the start of our careers.
Many others trod the same road, learning along the way that saving money is practical.
The Cleveland Museum believes people will appreciate the benefits of the passive design once they tour the exhibit. Beach, the museum official, said he hopes the concept will catch on, certainly in his own city where it adoption by builders and architects could "bring industry to Cleveland." The Passive House Institute U.S. says, the design technique "provides a solution that puts true carbon-neutrality within reach. Today."
And why not. U.S. Green Building Council Central California Chapter official Loren Aiton has said that adding energy efficiency and other measures to buildings add relatively little to the overall cost.
Still, upgrades come at a premium. LEED standards are graduated, starting with little or no difference in cost to tacking on 4 percent to 10 percent or more. The higher gold and platinum standards cost more to implement. But the savings are greater.
Chuck Miller of Doty & Miller Architects, who designed the Cleveland project, said the passive house was crafted to look conventional inside and out. While materials cost more initially, he said, "it will be a more affordable house over time. It will use 10 percent of the energy of other homes."
Back to that furnace or lack of one. Miller said the house will boast "very sophisticated ventilation and heat recovery equipment."
My friend lives in a small town just south of Tacoma, Wash. and has ducted electric heat. The system is very inefficient. He weatherproofed his home and added a plug-in heater -- an EdenPure, pitched by Bob Vila -- that uses light bulbs to generate heat. He dropped his winter electric bill 40 percent. And the mobile heater keeps his house just as warm.
It just goes to show that the efficiency concept is sound and can be done in different ways.
At summer's end, the Cleveland house will be moved to a permanent site a few blocks from the museum where it will be sold to a family. There it will continue to save its owners money, even in winter. And that's saying something. For instance, Cleveland has an average January temperature of 30.7 degrees. When I looked on Weather Underground, it was 21.3 degrees with a wind chill of 13 degrees.
That passive family will be toasty.
And others could be too. I've written in the past about Ed McGrath of superinsulatedhouse.com who began pushing many of these ideas decades ago. I can't help but think he'd be impressed.
Mike Nemeth, project manager of the San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization, spent 24 years working as a newspaperman editing and reporting from Alaska to California. The SJVCEO is a nonprofit dedicated to improving quality of life through increased use of clean and alternative energy. The SJVCEO is based in Fresno, Calif. and works with cities and counties and public and private organizations to demonstrate the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy throughout the eight-county region of the San Joaquin Valley. For more information, go to http://www.sjvcleanenergy.org.
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