DAVIS, Calif. — There are no flying cars in Susan O’Hara and Stuart Bennett’s garage, nor robot servants waiting to fetch their slippers and a martini when they arrive home.
But the experimental house where O’Hara, Bennett and their 9-year-old twin daughters live is designed to give researchers an opportunity to flash forward several years. The future envisioned has residences leaving no carbon footprint because they’re nearly 100-percent composed of materials from sustainable sources and powered by the sun. Electric cars are the rule here, not the exception.
Here’s what the postmodern house — with the shed-style roof lines and lapstrake siding in this central California town — has that you won’t find in a subdivision near you:
●The house uses reclaimed wood for all the trim and furniture, as well as reclaimed nails. Even the concrete is sustainable. The foundation and polished concrete floors contain pozzolan, which comes from volcanic ash and is used to reduce the amount of Portland cement needed. Making Portland cement requires lots of heat, and thus produces a considerable amount of carbon dioxide.
●The house has the same type of circadian-rhythm lighting that’s used on the International Space Station. It emits blue lights in the morning and orange light in the evening. The bedroom lighting produces a warm hue to help relax the family before going to sleep.
●This being California, the house is designed with the state’s high environmental protection and water preservation standards in mind. Runoff water goes into a bioswale on the property, avoiding sewers that eventually empty into the Sacramento River. The collected runoff is used to water plants in the yard, saving fresh water in this drought-ravaged state.
●The house gets all its power from the sun, but remains connected to the grid. In a pinch, an electric car parked in their garage can power the house.
“We signed up for a year here and we’re really hoping they let us stay on, because we don’t think we can go back to a regular house,” says O’Hara, 49, whose 12-month stay is scheduled to end in October.
The project is being driven by an unlikely manufacturer: Honda Motor Company.
Honda’s long journey to sustainable home design started in 1946, when company founder Soichiro Honda got an idea about mounting a small engine onto a bicycle.
For years, Honda has been studying green housing at its demonstration site in Japan. The demo house in Japan uses a small engine that runs on natural gas to generate its electricity. Heat produced by the engine is captured and used to warm the house. In international markets, the system is called “micro combined heat and power.” More than 130,000 units are in place in Japan, most of them made by Honda.
Now, with the Honda Smart House in California, the company is seeking to push the sustainability movement much further. One of Honda’s requirements for that study was the subjects needed to use a vehicle on a regular basis. The project furnished O’Hara and Bennett with a fully electric four-door Honda Fit to drive. An aim of the project is to prepare for a time when sustainable houses and vehicles will be in much wider use and to study how that would affect the nation’s aging power grid.
“We already had the demo house in Japan and on this one [in Davis], we really wanted to focus on the energy management side of things, the vehicle side of things and, ‘How is it going to integrate with the house?’ ” says Michael Koenig, a mechanical engineer and project leader of the Davis house.
“The ability to manage and dispatch energy is of interest to Honda,” says Koenig. “We want to be part of the solution.”
The home is in the University of California at Davis’s West Village, which is the largest planned net-zero energy community in the United States. Housing for faculty and students is priced at or below market rates. The research-heavy community is supported by a private-public partnership that includes
$7.5 million of grant money to study net-zero energy systems. The residence stands at the end of a short street without close neighbors. There is a small visitors’ center on one side of the house and a garage, accessed through an attached open corridor, on the other.
The visitors’ center provides a reminder that the house is under surveillance by not only Honda engineers looking at the energy stats from a remote location, but also by people dropping in for a look.
“We get a lot of people coming up to the door who don’t know the house isn’t open to the public, and they will come right in while we’re still in our bathrobes,” says Bennett, 45, who works in Sacramento as an actuary. “So it is kind of like living in a fishbowl.”
The family earned their stay at the home by answering a solicitation offered through the university, which is a supporter of the project along with Pacific Gas and Electric. They don’t pay rent but are charged a fee that “is way less than market rates for the area,” O’Hara says. The house is slated to remain occupied and observed for three years.
Inside, the home feels comfortably cool and spacious with high ceilings, modern design and furnishings. The appliances are all high-efficiency. The house is warmed and cooled by a radiant system under the floors. The family controls the lighting and temperature with three iPads stationed around the residence and an app on Bennett’s iPhone.
“When you open the door, the lights come on,” says O’Hara, executive director of the university’s School of Education. “There’s a lot about the house that’s very different, in a positive way. The house responds to you.”
The custom circadian lighting system automatically adjusts not only the level of illumination in the house but the color temperature of the light. Night lighting skews toward oranges and reds to make things easier to see in the dark. The house is programmed to put itself to sleep at bedtime by closing the blinds and adjusting the lighting. That sometimes conflicts with having two children living in the home, O’Hara says.
The girls, Aisling and Sabha, “have a tendency to undo what we’ve done,” she says. “If we’ve put the house to sleep later in the evening and the lights are all dim, the kids will go and press the controls and turn all the bright lights on.”
But never mind the bells and whistles. Bennett’s favorite feature is more current than futuristic. “We have a 65-inch flat screen TV set into the living room wall with the world’s best remote control,” he says.
O’Hara says she loves the lighting and the heated and cooled floors along with the basic layout and design of the house from the future. “It’s uplifting, just to be at home,” she says.
The California house gives engineers a real-time look at how the increased use of solar power can pose technological challenges to the nation’s antiquated energy infrastructure. Plug-in hybrid vehicles and fully electric vehicles affect the power grid, a system conceived in the 1800s to send power one way.
If 10,000 homes have rooftop solar collectors supply power to the grid, what happens when the sun goes behind a cloud? A massive drop-off of electricity. If 10,000 people who own electric cars come home at 6:30 p.m. and plug all of them in for a recharge, what happens? A major demand for power. Questions like these offer opportunities for project engineers to find solutions.
“As the number of grid-connected rooftop solar installations increase, it will become more and more important to have monitoring and control for two-way power flows,” says Dan T. Ton, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy, who is watching the project closely.
The house and car are way ahead of the market in another key area: While present-day electric cars at solar houses are still powered by an electric grid that depends mostly on coal, carbon is completely out of the picture of the California house. Adding a battery backup system to the house provides an extra layer of redundancy and the flexibility to store power for when the sun doesn’t shine.
The brain of the operation is the home energy-management system. What Honda calls “HEMS” is computer hardware and software designed to smarten the house and its connections by pulling power off the grid when needed, charging up the car battery, charging the house battery and sending power back to the grid when the house is producing more than it needs. The system “monitors where the energy should go and which source it should use,” says Bennett.
The energy-management system and the home’s battery stand in a glass-enclosed area in the garage. The HEMS is the size of a tall metal storage cabinet with shallow shelves. The battery resembles an oversized wine cooler, though the front is metal, not glass.
The biggest obstacle to bringing the house of the future into the present is that “regulatory policies and utility pricing structures need to catch up with the state of technology to compensate homeowners fairly for the societal and grid benefits that a home energy-management system provides,” says Honda spokesman Matt Sloustcher.
“In regions like California, with aggressive renewable energy goals, the regulatory processes are already underway,” Sloustcher says.
Scott Sowers and Marcie Geffner are freelance writers. Geffner reported from Davis, Calif.