In 2008, Bill Hoy had an idea. He wanted to build a zero house — a structure with zero net energy consumption and zero annual carbon emissions.
In September 2010, after a two-year research and design phase, Rehau North America and Montana State University broke ground on the EcoSmart House Project in Bozeman, Mont. The grand opening for the house was slated for April 20.
The overall goal of the collaborative project is to determine how building systems are best integrated to optimize energy consumption, comfort and life-cycle costs, and then to distribute that information via media to the community.
Participants in the project include students and faculty in MSU's Creative Research Lab in the College of Arts and Architecture; the School of Architecture; the School of Film; professor Kevin Amende and his students in the Aaon Lab in the Department of Chemical Engineering; College of Business students and digital archivist Jason Clark with the MSU Library for website development, according to Terry Beaubois, project manager for Montana State University. Videos and blogs have been created that document the process from the beginning.
“The goal has been to make this a campuswide project to the extent possible,” Beaubois said.
Over the course of two years, the multitudinous crew faced challenges like finding financing, technology setbacks and an uncooperative winter that slowed them down. Along the way, they tinkered with new technologies and learned through trial and error.
“From the beginning, this has been a research project,” Beaubois said. “No house has ever been built like this before, and so there was no precedent as to how long should it take to build.
“Using conventional approaches to plan and schedule construction was, of course, necessary, but one of the things that I am most proud of about our team is how flexible, willing to contribute and experiment, and to accommodate changes in the house as new ideas were identified that were important to include, but might affect the project time schedule.”
Bill Johansen, director of construction services for the project, said the project put 15 polymer-based, sustainable building systems to use in the house, including a geothermal ground-loop heat exchanger, radiant heating and cooling, snow and ice melting, fire sprinklers, tambour cabinetry and sunlight-responsive thermochromic glazing.
Rehau's goal is “to demonstrate that polymer-based construction product solutions are economically viable and effective in sustaining an energy-efficient home,” Johansen said.
The result, he said, is not only sustainability and energy efficiency, but an overall holistic design approach, as the building addresses human sustainability and aging-in-place.
The structure utilizes vinyl window and door designs and unplasticized PVC, formulated for impact and fade resistance by Rehau. Made for thermal efficiency and durability, each Energy Star vinyl window is estimated by the Department of Energy to save $125-$340 on energy annually.
Toronto-based Amvic Inc.'s wall and floor insulating concrete forms are made with a combination of expanded polystyrene and concrete thermal mass to minimize temperature fluctuations by absorbing and storing heat, for a 30-50 percent reduction in energy consumption for heating and cooling. The wall system was also used as a floor system in two-thirds of the house.
Additionally, R-Control-brand structural insulated panels from Big Sky Insulations Inc. of Belgrade, Mont., were used for walls, roofs and floors. The panels are made with Foam-Control EPS insulation laminated between sheets of structural sheathing to form a strong structural panel.
“[Rehau's] global leadership in polymer research and application to products [into the building industry] provided much insight into what, where and how to incorporate polymer products in this project,” Beaubois said.
“Some products, such as [cross-linked polyethylene] piping, we were familiar with; other products, such as Eco-Air, Rehau team members introduced us to and offered advice and research information to consider.”
The human element
Hoy is the official homeowner, and director for strategic and business development for Leesburg, Va.-based Rehau, but he and his family won't move into the structure for another two years.
MSU students will continue to research and collect data from the house using 380 sensors embedded in various locations to measure flows, temperature and humidity, collecting recordings every five seconds. Energy use, mechanical and non-mechanical temperature and radiant heating and cooling will be measured and recorded.
In the meantime, the house will be used for seminars, academy events, meetings for local non-profits and university-related activities.
The research phase will continue for an additional two years once the Hoy family moves in.
The structure accommodates multigenerational living. Hoy will occupy the home with his wife, their 24-year-old daughter who is confined to a wheelchair, and potentially Hoy's parents. The aging-in-place concept will be explored via telemedicine communi- technology, in which “medical information is transferred through interactive audiovisual media for the purpose of consulting and sometimes remote medical procedures or examinations,” according to Rehau's website.
“While containing a number of very technical elements, this project is demonstrating the benefits of involving students, faculty, a variety of colleges at the university, the MSU Foundation, MSU alumni, and companies and local government in a project aiming at improving energy efficiency and human comfort through well thought out planning, design and construction,” Beaubois said.
Ultimately, the extra investment and open-ended deadline proved worthwhile, Hoy said.
“My wife and I wanted to give back as much as we could to the community and students,” Hoy said, “and we knew it wouldn't be an ordinary house.”