Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article about a house to be built on the grounds of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg to test energy-saving technologies incorrectly said that the house would be built adjacent to the institute's building and fire research lab. It will be next to the engineering lab. This version has been updated.

'Net zero' house to be built in Maryland should produce as much energy as it uses

By Sandra Fleishman
Monday, March 14, 2011; 7:09 AM

It sounds like an idea out of a sci-fi novel: a house that can produce as much energy each year as it uses. But most buyers aren't interested in houses from a sci-fi novel, and they aren't much interested in paying extra for them, either.

But a test house about to be built on a federal research site in Gaithersburg is designed to look like a typical home in the Washington area, and its inventors are going to great lengths to calculate how well the normal-looking sci-fi house would generate and consume energy when occupied by a family of four.

Groundbreaking is set for March 25, and construction is to begin in March or April, with completion expected in 15 months. Gaithersburg-based commercial builder Therrien Waddell Construction Group is the contractor, working with residential builder Bethesda Bungalows, which focuses on high-end "green" building.

The four-bedroom, three-bath house will be built with the latest in energy-efficient techniques and technology - plus redundant alternative-energy systems that will be tested later. It was designed by Building Science Corp. in Somerville, Mass. The two-story bungalow could be right out of Takoma Park, Hyattsville, Bethesda - or from Bethesda Bungalows' new-project files.

The 2,700-square-foot wood-framed house with detached, electric-car-ready garage will sit on a small hill on the north end of the campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, near Clopper and Quince Orchard roads. The location is next to the institute's engineering lab, where 50 or 60 scientists in the building environment division will monitor how the energy-saving technologies work when the home is in use. The $2.6 million research project was funded through federal stimulus money, after two years of preparation and design.

But no one will really live there. Instead, scientists will track what happens with a simulated family of four. "To simulate the family, the showers, toilets, lights and appliances will actually be turned on and off by computers . . . located in the detached garage," says A. Hunter Fanney, chief of the building environment division. "The computers will send signals to every device in the home to control its operation. In the case of water [used in the showers, faucets and toilets], the computer will actually open and close the water valves to extract the correct amount of hot and cold water."

Other automatically cycled appliances include a range with oven, a washer and dryer, microwave, dishwasher, and refrigerator with a door that opens and closes regularly.

Standing in for the parents and two kids, to generate body heat that will be factored into the energy-usage equation, "we'll have people simulators - devices that are similar in appearance to little hot-water heaters that will give off heat and moisture to simulate humans" in every room, Fanney says.

The "people" will be turned on and off on schedule, too. The two heaters in the master bedroom and one in each of the kids' rooms will go on at night when they're "sleeping" and off in the morning when they leave for work or school. Units in the bathrooms will cycle on and off, as will heaters in the family room, dining room and kitchen.

The house also will have a 1,518-square-foot basement, complete with people simulators.

If the notion of human simulators and computerized utilities sounds cutting edge, it is. But Fanney says much of the "net-zero" building approach is within many homeowners' grasp. Betsy Pettit, president of Building Science Corp., who served as the architect and building sciences consultant, agrees.

"In most buildings, you can lower energy usage by 40 to 50 percent by using existing off-the-shelf technology, if it's selected properly, installed properly and maintained properly, and attention is given to detail," Fanney says.

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