It was wise of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), an arm of the Commerce Department, to erect the Net Zero Energy Residential Test Facility (NZERTF) on the grounds on its own Gaithersburg, Md., campus and not in an anonymous D.C. metro-area subdivision. After all, I’m guessing that a 2,700-square-foot upscale suburban home where the occupants — a family of four named “the Nisters” — don’t really exist would probably freak out the neighbors. You know ... a home where the lights switch on and off on a regular schedule, appliances power up and down, the toilets flush, the showers runs, the TV blares, the cellphones charge, and the constant buzz of domesticity is emitted without a single human crossing the threshold.
Spooky. But then again, I suppose all of the clipboard-carrying white coats coming and going from the home's conspicuously placed detached garage would tip off any bewildered neighbors to the fact that, despite its unexceptional appearance, this isn’t your average solar-powered residence.
Unlike other energy consumption monitoring experiments where human guinea pigs are brought in (this one in Sweden immediately comes to mind), the NZERTF is home to a computer-simulated robo-family. The reason? NIST scientists — and yes, they are indeed camped out and monitoring data in the detached garage that serves as the home’s nerve center — wanted absolute control of the energy usage taking place within the home. "The reason they're not real people is we want to have control," A. Hunter Fanney, chief of the NIST’s Energy and Environment Division, explains to CNN. "With real people, we all live randomly, so it's very difficult to have this control in place."
After 16 months of construction and three years of development, the NZERTF was officially unveiled during a ribbon-cutting ceremony last week. U.S. Green Building Council honcho Rick Fedrizzi and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency Kathleen Hogan were among those in attendance. The goal of the $2.5-million, 2-year-long project is four-fold according to S. Shyam Sunder, director of NIST's engineering laboratory: to demonstrate net-zero energy capability, to serve as a test site for emerging technologies, to quantify energy usage, and to compare installed use with controlled use.
In other words, the facility and all of the data coming out of it is meant to help advance the green construction industry. “We want to demonstrate that energy efficiency does not need to be at odds with a typical suburban neighborhood," explains NIST director Patrick Gallagher. "We think that by demonstrating that it’s possible to have the home design you want, with the energy efficiency you want, we’ll help speed the adoption of energy-efficient technologies and net-zero homes.”
The whole “not being at odds with a typical suburban neighborhood” aspect mentioned by Gallagher has been the focus in much of the press coverage that the LEED Platinum-certified NZERTF has received. The home produces 15 to 20 percent more energy than it consumes, but it also looks a lot like every other suburban house in the region! Remarkable!
“It is spacious, contemporary and livable. There are stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, and the bedrooms are painted a soothing green. Stately columns convey 'comfortable suburban.' A savvy Realtor could market it as ‘The Woodlands’ model or ‘The Retreat,'” writes CNN of the home.
“Save for a few discrete solar panels perched atop the roof, NIST's home looks just like a newly built upscale home complete with beautiful siding, exquisite architectural details, custom built-ins, and high-end finishes galore,” describes U.S. News & World Report.
“The two-story bungalow could be right out of Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Bethesda,” elaborates the Washington Post.
However, the project’s emphasis on blending into a car-dependent suburban landscape isn't going over well with some. TreeHugger’s Lloyd Alter is a bit more critical in his assessment, calling the facility a “high tech robotic green dinosaur.” He writes (and not without taking a bit of mostly constructive flack from commenters): “This house is a demonstration project of every thing we have to STOP doing in the design of our houses." He adds ... “the greenest house in the tract suburb still performs worse than another in a denser, transit oriented community. Being Net Zero is meaningless if you can't even walk to the curb, let alone the mailbox or the grocery store.”
While the four-bedroom, three-bathroom home embraces rather than confronts sprawl (hey, at least there appears to be an EV-charging station), there isn’t much negative to say about its energy-saving bells and whistles: Rooftop photovoltaics (10.2kW output), three different geothermal heating loops, radiant floor heating, conventional and high velocity duct systems for air distribution, high-performance windows, solar hot water heating, Energy Star appliances, LED and CLF lighting, high levels of insulation (R-75 for the roof, R-48 for the walls and R-25 and R-11 for the 1,500-square-foot unfinished basement), and much more.
A more unique feature — one usually found in commercial projects — is the bioretention system surrounding the facility. EcoHome explains: “The structure features no gutters. Instead, stormwater is channeled to a 2-foot gravel perimeter, where it is then fed into corrugated piping that feeds it to the bioretention ponds.”
In addition to LEED Platinum certification, the Building Science Corp-designed home is geared to achieve Energy Star 3.0 designation along with Indoor airPLUS certification. Most all of the materials that went into the home’s construction — funded by federal stimulus money, by the way — are American made. Same goes for all of the equipment. The lone exception is a ventilation device from Canada in the basement.
As for the Nisters and their 8-and 14-year-old children, their every move will be monitored by NIST scientists and their energy consumption data made available to the public during the first year of testing. "Every movement of their lives has been scripted. Lights will go on and off; showers will take place. Appliances will be turned on and off just as a family of four would use them,” Fanney tells CNN. “Yes, the shower for the 14-year-old is much longer," he adds to U.S. News & World Report.
After the Nisters year-long stint, "the facility will be used to test existing and new energy-efficient technologies and develop methods of test that better reflect how those technologies will perform in a real home, rather than a laboratory," explains the NZERTF website.
Click here for more info — including architectural plans and a ton of specifics — on the Net Zero Energy Residential Test Facility. Any initial thoughts?