Physicist’s energy-efficient home a ‘model’ of green living

Think of the lowly rubber band when incorporating energy-saving concepts into your projects.

That’s the advice a leading physicist has for designers, architects and builders.

Amory Lovins debunked the notion that design can only stretch thinking so far before it “snaps back to its original position.”

Such a view has limited many designers into creating only what consumers currently demand or comprehend, said Lovins, chairman and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Colorado-based group of industry experts.

Lovins – named by Time Magazine as one of the Top 100 influential thinkers of 2009 – spoke at Autodesk University Convention in Las Vegas this week.

His topic: Advance Design Integration for Radical Energy Efficiency.  

The physicist advised his audience to jump into the design space beyond current thinking to realize what could be.

“Then … come back to where we are now thereby stretching conventional thinking”.

He said the design of his own home exemplifies the concept of “working backwards to achieve desired outcomes.”

Lovins and his wife Judith live in an ultra-energy efficient home in Old Snowmass, Colo., constructed between 1982 and 1984 by 100 volunteers and a dozen professional builders.

The house draws almost all of its space and water-heat from solar energy and uses about a tenth the usual amount of household electricity.

The couple is also able to grow bananas at a space located 7,000 feet above sea-level in the Rocky Mountains.

“Temperatures in the Rockies go through extremes, but we remain pretty comfortable, whether it’s -44C or +46C outside,” Lovins said.

The house was constructed much before huge shift towards “greener living.”

Green ain’t costly

Lovins challenged the notion that green living is expensive.

He said the traditional way to reduce heating costs – purchasing insulation material – has limits. “You can only put in so much insulation until it reaches a point where it provides no benefit.”  

Many builders, he said, fail to find alternatives for the real energy hog – the furnace.

Lovins told of how he cut his reliance on this contraption.

His home uses a combination of solar panel arrays and residential air-to-air heat exchangers that capture heat from the interior to warm incoming fresh air.

This happens with peak flow efficiency of around 95 per cent and average efficiency close to 100 per cent. 

Xenon-filled windows with R-14 center-of-glass insulating value also improve insulation and air tightening.

LED-dominated fifth lighting retrofit, a day lighting retrofit, radiant solar floor heating, and a new highly efficient electric stove integrated with specially designed pots save around 60 per cent of the energy normally needed for cooking. 

Business applications

By eliminating big energy hogs many industries can dramatically improve energy efficiency, while cutting carbon emissions, Lovins said.

For instance, he said, in the automobile industry manufacturers are only now acting on the decades-old concept that by reducing a car’s weight energy efficiency can be greatly improved.

About three-fourths of energy loss can be attributed to the car’s weight, the physicist noted.

For decades race cars have been using lighter materials, he said. But only now is the practice being more widely adopted within mainstream automobile manufacture because aluminum and recently carbon fibre used to be too expensive.

Lighter cars will save manufacturers more in the long run, he said. They would involve less bulky drive trains, smaller motors and more space for users.  

Lovins also advocates better and more energy-efficient designs of motors, fans, heaters and air conditioning systems.

“With the elimination of cost in mechanical systems we are tunneling through the cost barrier,” he said.

Reasons to retrofit

Huge opportunities exist for companies to retrofit existing building for sustainability, the physicist said. 

Top executives of design software firm Autodesk agree.

New building regulations and stimulus funding in the U.S. is rapidly growing the green retrofit market, according to Phil Bernstein, vice-president, industry strategy at Autodesk.  

This is projected to be a $10 – $15 billion market by 2014.

Bernstein said developments in other countries are likely to encourage retrofitting of existing buildings.

For example Autodesk recently learned the German government will be halting construction of public buildings for the next five to six years.

“Retrofitting existing public buildings will be the emphasis,” Bernstein said.

His company recently expanded the Autodesk Guide to Sustainable Design.

The idea is to equip existing building owners, and AEC professionals, with practical tools and information to help them achieve optimum energy efficiency and minimal environmental impact for their projects.

For instance the updated Autodesk Guide to Sustainable Design site now features a unique graphical user interface that presents the user with two options, New Construction or Renovation modes.

Each option is customized to the user’s profession or industry selection.

The guide offers detailed virtual walk-throughs for all phases of a new design or renovation project, allowing visitors to view key decision points at each stage of a building’s lifecycle.

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