Roughly half of our buildings’ energy use originates from homes, and water concerns surge as droughts persist across the country. Yet the measurement and monitoring procedures becoming common in commercial buildings have yet to make their way into the residential mainstream.

“A home is the largest investment most people will ever make,” asserts Chris Mathis of Mathis Consulting Company in Asheville, N.C. “We’ve got incredible measurement technologies available, so why aren’t we using them for homes?”

Incremental steps toward better-performing residences are being made, but accountability remains an issue. The 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) calls for pressure testing the building envelope and duct systems located outside of the thermal envelope to check for leakage in new homes and major renovations. However, these testing requirements have only been adopted by a handful of states and code compliance remains a challenge.  According to Mathis, “non-compliance wouldn’t be an issue if we performed follow-up tests, balancing and measurements.”

Making Modifications

Actual performance is a two-fold proposition that also includes occupant behavior. Carla Maxwell, special projects manager at Affordable Comfort in Moon Township, Penn., notes that utilities already have the metering and measurement tools, but that they don’t share any real-time information with customers. 

“Homeowners will have to push utilities and governments to make electrical and water meter data regularly accessible,” Maxwell says. Items such as plug-in meters, power strips with built-in meters, whole house monitors, and Web portals (in places where utilities have advanced metering systems) aren’t being properly leveraged. “In many cases, homeowners don’t even know what’s available to them or how to change their routine,” she says. 

Mathis also asserts that utilities need to share current information. “One of the things we’ve noticed is that when people are given efficient and clear signals, their behavior changes,” he says.

The Active House in Webster Groves, Mo., is one prototype trying to solve both sides of the equation. Matt Belcher, director at the High Performance Buildings Research Center at the University of Missouri, Columbia, says the team built the home to European Active House specifications using the ICC 700 National Green Building Standard’s checklist. The residence just became home to a family of three and its performance will be meticulously tracked for one year. 

In the Active House, individual meters are tied to the lighting controls, heating system, and a separate automated natural ventilation system. Small data loggers monitor air quality, and sensors on the master shower show its water use, while the utility meter reveals whole-house energy consumption. A laptop in the house transmits data to the university’s team and allows the residents to see and improve their performance.

“We can send recommendations to the family to adjust systems or try something new so we expect the house will perform much better by the end of the year,” says Belcher. “Our goal is to show actual demands on the house and how to improve those demands. Then, we will share the results with the National Association of Homebuilders.”

For more on the construction of the Active House, as chronicled in a blog for ECOHOME by Belcher, click below:

Building on its successful launch in 2012, ECOHOME’s Vision 2020 program continues in 2013, focusing on eight critical areas in sustainability. Track our progress all year as our panel of visionary focus-area chairs, our editors, and leading researchers, practitioners, and advocates share their perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward sustainable priorities and goals in residential construction between now and 2020. The program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Forum in Washington, D.C., in September 2013, and with a special edition of ECOHOME in Winter 2013. Click here to see the 2012 Wrap-Up.