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(See prior posts if you don't already know what Cheapatopia is.)

I learned a lot about green building practices recently because we're building our own home right now and trying to make it as energy efficient as possible. Here's the main thing I learned so far: There's no practical way to know if you are making the right decisions.

Every home is different. Every house has a different size, shape, orientation to the sun, shadiness, climate, mix of materials, and so on. Likewise, every family lives differently. So the right energy-saving solution for one lifestyle might be totally wrong for another.

On the surface, most of the energy saving ideas you will encounter seem like no-brainers. For example, radiant barriers in the roof are known to be hugely effective. But if you have radiant barriers, how much do you need to insulate your walls in your particular climate, with your particular sun exposure, considering all the other energy features in your home? It would take a team of engineers to figure that out.

And how about simple decisions such as tankless water heaters versus the newer continuous hot water systems that are remarkably efficient? Common wisdom says tankless is the way to go. But does your decision change if you have a larger house with lots of bathrooms? And has anyone factored in the maintenance cost and longevity of tankless systems? And how much hot water does my particular family use anyway? A consumer can't make educated choices about this sort of thing.

Our home will have a whole house fan. It's a great technology for climates where it is hot during the day and cool at night. Unlike an attic fan that moves hot air out of the attic, the whole house fan sucks air out of the main house and pushes it into the attic and out. But do I really need it, given all the thermal mass in my home, the shaded windows on the west side, the radiant barriers, the insulation, etc.? Beats me.

My point is that even professional housing developers have no idea which energy saving solutions should be designed into their homes. At what point do you reach diminishing returns? No one knows.

In Cheapatopia, all homes will be tested with computer models before they are built. The goal will be to make the homes so well designed that heating and cooling costs (the biggest drains on energy) are minimized. Obviously the location of Cheapatopia will drive the specific energy-saving choices. Even the orientation of residential streets in Cheapatopia will be designed with sun exposure in mind. And perhaps there will be lots of underground pipes for geothermal heating and cooling. That's as "ground up" as you can design a city.

I'll bet energy use per new home could be decreased by about 75% from the current average, using existing technology, if we simply engineered homes from the ground up to be as efficient as possible.

You might have seen press reports of so-called zero energy homes. They tend to be one-of-a-kind models that are meant to make a PR point for some large energy company or developer. The basic approach is to build a modest sized home, which is automatically energy efficient, give it some good insulation, and slap a big photovoltaic system on the roof, thus generating more energy than it uses. The rest of the things they do right, from the fluorescent bulbs to the Energy Star appliances get lost in the rounding.

In Cheapatopia, all homes will be zero energy, but they won't need such large photovoltaic systems because everything else will be done right.
 
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Aug 9, 2009
Q: In the Cheapotopia home, are the homes zero energy because heating and cooling ("the biggest drains on energy") have been reduced to zero, or because EVERYTHING has been reduced to zero? And what does this zero mean?

If it means heating and cooling no longer require any energy use, how? Not by actually not using energy, but by having all the energy provided within the house? (Those geothermal pipes are going to be moving energy, aren't they?) That is, by being off the grid and the pipe (except those geothermal pipes, or maybe not), and being on the rooftop photovoltaics?

Insulation that will reduce heating and cooling costs to zero (let's just accept that fantasy) will mean that something else is now "the biggest drain on energy." Now we will have to resent that and reduce it to zero! But then... Hey, it's turtles all the way down.

 
 
Aug 4, 2009
"tankless water heaters versus the newer continuous hot water systems"

Aren't they the same thing? Any URLs we can look at? When I google either I get the same result set, more or less.
 
 
Jul 26, 2009
And, of course there are always unintended consequences. For instance, here's a great story about energy efficient windows that reflected light so well that they were effectively heating the neighbors' house. Well, actually not so much "heating" as "melting."

http://www.salemnews.com/punews/local_story_204232819.html
 
 
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Jul 25, 2009
Cheaptopia is twinned with cities in Europe. Passive houses (Passivhaus in German) are being built in fairly large numbers in Central Europe and Scandinavia (15k to 20k). They use integrated design to reduce energy use rather than fancy-smancy solar photaics. Google knows all!
 
 
Jul 24, 2009
Actually, radiant barriers are only worth the cost in hotter climates. In New England, for example, they cost more than they'll ever save, and the money is better spent elsewehere--on more insulation, for example. Yet more confusion!

However, consumers can get some guidance on this stuff. Consumer Reports did an unbiased report on tankless water heaters. Fine Homebuilding and other magazines reports on insulation and building options all the time. I recommend you begin subscribing or reading some of these publications as soon as you begin thinking about building or remodeling.

But the biggest problem for consumers is that builders are so unconcerned with really learning about the best ways to do things. I used to be a contractor, and I had a questionnaire for prospective hires. One question was, "What trade-related magazines do you read?" and it included suggestions from Better Homes and Gardens to builder publications. Not ONE applicant ever read any magazines about building! How does one learn about building? By just doing what every builder in one's area has always done? Evidently. My cousin is a painting contractor, and he once complained about the types of guys he seemed to find as "the scum of the earth". In terms of taking responsibility for providing their customers with the best possible product at a reasonable cost, I think a lot of builders unfortunately fall into this category.

Fuel prices would be much lower now if builders had started incorporating the research that began in the 70's. My 2,100 sq. ft. NH home costs about $1,000 annually to heat, and that's only because the closed-loop system I heat with uses kerosene, which skyrocketed to about $3.75 last season...gas would be even cheaper. I built in a house in Maine that used about $300 a year with electric heat. Neither house cost a lot extra to build or looked out of the ordinary.
 
 
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Jul 24, 2009
What you suggest is only a temporary solution. At the heart of the problem are Humans. We can't see in the dark, fly or move around quickly enough. We can't adapt to the climate in our region. A permanent solution would be genetic engineering. Humans with wings, taking off to work everyday is more appealing than...say flying cars.

Heating and cooling are the next big energy consumers. How about humans who can use sunlight to make energy...something like plants or cold blooded animals.

On a separate but related note, whats more energy efficient, a car or a person?
 
 
Jul 24, 2009
Thinking of a facility this size you should go beyond putting up solar panels everywhere. The location of the Cheapatopia is essential. Just imagine if the Cheapatopia is located on a geothermal reservoir. Your heating and energy problem solved.
 
 
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Jul 23, 2009
Scott, I'm terribly disappointed with this post!

You mentioned taking college living as one of your inspirations for Cheapatopia and its social dimension, but then you eliminated one of the biggest reasons that college life is so social - the dorm.

Single family homes are a waste of space, even if you can somehow make them less of a waste of energy. If you take a typical dorm, which is basically a bunch of apartments with a common eating, gaming, and laundry area, you have both an extremely efficient use of land and energy, as well as the ideal social environment for maximizing interaction.

Now, take that and wire it up for cable and WiFi, add a small theatre and a workout room, make the apartments big enough for a family to be comfortable - probably separate bedrooms, a full bath, a den, and a little kitchenette. Suddenly you've got uber-efficient living quarters, plus guaranteed social interaction. And with everyone living in just a few dozen groups of dormitories throughout Cheapatopia, you've gone a huge step forward in your goal to keep cars out of the city, since mass transit becomes extremely practical.
 
 
Jul 23, 2009
I agree that the goal should be to lower a house's energy consumption, not increase production. Good insulation is much more economical over time than a miniature solar field or wind farm.

It would also be helpful if prefabrication was encouraged for building homes. This process is cheaper, faster, and extremely more efficient than all on site construction.

To encourage that buildings in Cheapatopia are low consuming, efficiently constructed structures, the local government could offer tax rebates and cuts directly related to these. The less waste was produced during construction, the higher your rebate, and the less electricity, gas, etc, is consumed by the house or business per year, the higher your cut.
 
 
Jul 23, 2009
My best energy saver? My car sits in the garage instead of commuting. I work from home. Saves me at least 16 gallons per week. That saves about $200 per month plus the lower carbon footprint. More companies are closing down offices and moving toward work-at-home policies. Only a small percentage of white collar jobs require daily face-to-face interactions.

Built my home office as part of a finished basement. It's cool in the summer so AC is on infrequently. No extra heater is required in the winter, either. Worst case, a t-shirt and sweater are required to be comfortable. I live near Chicago.
 
 
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Jul 23, 2009
I recently saw a report on a place called Drake Landing (North America's first solar community) in Alberta Canada. Sounded like a really neat experiment. Especially the borehole thermal storage strategy.
Maybe we should ask the Drake Landing residents for their input on Cheaptopia's energy efficiency designs. You know, in case you end up wanting to build Cheaptopia where it's minus 25 degrees four out of twelve months.
 
 
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Jul 23, 2009
I think the modest size thing is key. I read recently that a 4,000 sq ft energy-star rated home uses more energy than a relatively inefficient 2,000 sq. ft home. In Cheapatopia, smaller homes make sense if they are built around a community center with a gym, game room, etc. - so that folks didn't feel the need to build these amenities into their own homes.

In other words, sharing resources saves more energy than the best technological fixes out there.

 
 
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Jul 23, 2009
Scott,
You are over engineering this. Our last house was built with just a few energy efficient ideas and it cost less to run then the apartment we are renting now that is a quarter the size. Which drives me nuts. There are so many big gains that are being ignored that lifestyle changes aren't even worth it yet

Building an energy efficient house is pretty easy, it's just none of the big builders are doing it.. Most big builders have a handful of designs, half of which are mirrors. If they would just have a set of designs that focused on N, E, S, W facing houses with the roofs acknowledging the Sun and its effects. We could drop utility costs by a huge factor right there.

My builder was a really good guy and had some good and useful ideas but he steered us toward some ideas that made it easy for him to install it, but we had to deal with it multiple times every day until we left.

I don't care about my carbon footprint, but I do care about how much money I am spending on utilities, The less I can spend on things like that the more I can spend on things like Dilbert Mugs. But as a nice side effect my carbon footprint goes down. Bonus.
 
 
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Jul 23, 2009
Not to rain on your daydream or cast aspersions on the house you are having built. But I think of a term I learned in a public policy class a quarter century ago: “Satisfice”. This is when you have looked at some alternatives and done some assessment, and doing more looking and assessing will take a lot longer. Sometimes getting it good in a short time (and getting on with your life) is better than getting it perfect in a long period of time. For example, (in my opinion) you should add as much of whatever easily available not too costly insulation there is for your walls and attic. If someone else reduces their costs even more using some expensive insulation, so what. They may be paying less for energy but paid more upfront (essentially the hybrid car dilemma, buy less gas but pay for the electric engine upfront).
 
 
Jul 23, 2009
At this point, it probably isn't necessary to determine the 'best' configuration. 99 % of homes are currently built with essentially NO attention to energy efficiency. Its almost all low-hanging fruit right now. Some very simple changes, such as reflective roofing materials, or more effective wall insulation would make significant improvements for relatively low cost. Even getting developers to orient houses for reasonable solar gain in winter would have appreciable effects. Most homes are built by large-scale developers such as KB. Rather than dreaming about utopian visions, I would advocate that we think about how to incent the major developers to give the topic some meaningful attention.
 
 
Jul 23, 2009
How about building all homes inside hills or mountains to get the nautural 54 degree temperatures year round? You could then install fiber-optic lighting systems that bring natural sunlight inside so you don't feel like you are underground.
 
 
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Jul 23, 2009
Given that you're in the area, are you familiar with the new California Academy of Sciences? The building which is touted as the 'greenest in the world' is basically a big experimental building for a lot of the energy efficiency methods. They've done a few really interesting things, obviously, but I think the niftiest is that the main section of the museum doesn't have a traditional AC system - instead, it takes advantage of it's microclimate in Golden Gate Park to create a passive cooling system.

You talk about it, but I'll reiterate, that in great building design, large or small, taking into consideration your local climate is critical. The same passive cooling system wouldn't work in the C.A.S if it was located just in downtown San Francisco, but there are certainly other design considerations that could be made if the building was over there instead.

Full disclosure - I'm a volunteer docent at the Academy of Science
 
 
Jul 23, 2009
Is there a climate where it's hot at night and cool during the day?
 
 
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Jul 23, 2009
Here's a short video showing a real-world passive solar house, with essentially no climate control needed:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tR0BhPhEqMA

To 'god save England': Solar panels and wind turbines certainly do have carbon emissions. They're not made out of air, or manufactured by elves, or transported by unicorns. It takes quite a bit of energy (not to mention money) to build out renewable power systems.

If you make your house twice as efficient, you need half the solar panels. It's WAY more cost effective to reduce energy requirements and improve efficiency than it is to add more panels or turbines.

We've reduced our household energy usage by almost 50% through simple, straightforward efficiency measures. It would have cost literally 50 times as much to reduce our electric bill by the same amount through solar panels or wind turbines. There's a reason you don't see very many of them around.
 
 
Jul 23, 2009
Scott,

think you might have missed a trick here... Why are we trying to make our houses more energy efficient? Ans: so we dont waste fuel and money. to reduce our carbon footprint and our expenses...

Cheaptopia in all likelyhood, (from the comments i have read) wouldn't have any carbon producing energy sources, Most people seem to want to site it somewhere where there is alot of sun.. and wind and water power are equably sustainable...

My point being that with eco energy production there is no carbon emmision from these sources. The only heat rising from Cheaptopia will be from our roofs, which with a little insulation isnt that of a problem, If its somewhere sunny then heating your house wont be your 1st concern either, Ergo you dont need to worry about the houses being amazingly efficient as you have covered this at source... also as the only real cost will in transfering the power, the expense of actualy buying it will be less. With Solar pannals, personal turbines and a raft of other generating souces attached to each house to sell back to the power board your going to end up cost neutral possibly even in profit by the end of the 1st year...
 
 
 
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