By 2020 every new home will meet much higher performance standards, delivering outstanding comfort, indoor environmental quality, energy efficiency, and value. Homes will become more sophisticated in how they are designed, engineered, produced, tested, sold, and serviced—and more like other advanced products in our lives, such as our iPhones and our cars. Building science will be at the heart of the equation, understood and embraced by everyone in the home building industry.
As a kid growing up in Wales, I dreamed of being an architect. I went to college to study product design, focusing on cars, so it’s no surprise that I still look at every home in the context of a car—design, performance, controls, and comfort.
When I moved to the United States in 1986 to direct GE’s Living Environments program, which focused on building homes using new materials and technologies, I was full of ambitious plans to change the housing industry. Even then, I saw the outlines of what’s become the foundation of our work at IBACOS: whole-house integration. It’s not just about technology. We’re focusing on building systems and business processes, with the eventual goal of making net-zero homes viable on a production builder scale.
What I didn’t predict was how long it would take for the home building industry to start filling in those outlines. Over the last 26 years, I’ve learned that this industry isn’t so quick to embrace innovation—or the collaboration that’s required to achieve it. Back in 2007, IBACOS founded the Best Practices Research Alliance (www.theresearchalliance.org) to bring together production home builders, business and quality management experts, and leading suppliers to address industry challenges. But the fallout from the housing crisis has focused us even more sharply on the need for collaboration and change.
Home buyers have changed, too. In the wake of the housing crash, there aren’t as many of them, they have less buying power, and they have different expectations and needs than they did just a few years ago. Home buyers want homes that are economical to buy, as well as healthy, comfortable, and “familiar.”
Some will argue that high performance needs to be accompanied by avant-garde design, saying that home buyers want their homes to look completely unique. While that’s true of some buyers, many find comfort in tradition and don’t want to live in or next to a home that’s too far from the norm. They also want them to be economical to own, which means they should be energy efficient, water saving, more durable, and low maintenance.
But there is good news, because the industry has made real progress over the last few years, both in terms of building science and in terms of business processes. We have the ability, right now, to deliver the kind of homes buyers are looking for, but only if we address some of the challenges along the way.
Technological Challenges and Potential Solutions
Advancements in materials, products, and applications have made virtually airtight homes possible. For example, in our own Alliance Energy Efficiency Lab Home outside of Pittsburgh, we achieved a 0.54 ACH50 leakage rate, or less than the leakage allowed through an opening the size of a 3-by-3-inch Post-it note.
But as building envelopes have dramatically improved, the environment inside of them hasn’t. Improving indoor air quality and dealing with moisture—both in the air and its possible buildup in walls—has become the next big challenge for building systems research.
At the same time, the quality of that air has declined. In homes without adequate ventilation, both biological contaminants (molds, pollen, pet dander, etc.) and chemical contaminants (carbon monoxide, car exhaust, VOCs, formaldehyde, etc.) can be present in much greater concentrations than in outdoor air.
Moisture buildup in walls can be another unintended consequence of a tight house. It can cause rot and structural damage, and provide a breeding ground for mold, further polluting indoor air and affecting homeowners’ health.
To address these challenges, it’s important that we understand what’s coming, and, since we’ve been focused on the future of the building industry for almost 25 years, we have a good idea what the future home building industry will look like.