Leading Edge Homebuilding Technologies

Innovative technologies American builders should use from Europe

By Don Neff

New building technologies and innovations from Europe and industry thought leaders in the U.S. may become more widely used in the near future. Energy efficiency, resource conservation, and building automation are incorporated into the process, which involve different levels of integration. 

Level Zero (Integration) is a basic “analog” home as found in remote villages as a base case with no technology. Level 1 has some isolated smart technology. Level 2 houses have a bundled and programmable set of systems. Level 3 homes are programmable but also more anticipatory of occupant needs. Level 4 could be systems which learn, modify and adapt—there are new devices on the market now being integrated into homes. Level 5 could be systems fully integrated and meeting all predictive behavior. Finally, Level 6 could be intuitive smart homes which are interconnected into communities and cities. 

Level 1: Aerogel Insulation

Aerogel insulation is a high-performance product which combines thermal performance with fire prevention properties. With an estimated R-value of well over 10 per inch, which is three times greater than fiberglass batts, and 3.2 times greater than blown cellulose, and with hydrophobic properties, Aerogel insulation presents a new product with construction applications not only in exterior building envelopes, but also in fire resistive assemblies. It is reportedly such a good insulator, that a blowtorch on one side won’t ignite a match on the other side. 

This gives new meaning to Dr. Joe Lstiburek’ s quote, “If you are cold, you put on a sweater, you don’t eat it,” comparing the effectiveness of exterior building insulation to interior fiberglass batt insulation stuffed into the stud bay cavities. 

Three inches of aerogel insulation provides an equivalent R-Value of R30.9. Aerogel can provide the triple solution of improved building insulation, better sound control and fire protection. This is a homebuilder’s dream come true.

Level 2: Transparent Solar Panels

Transparent solar panels are thin and flexible “see-through” membranes for application on exterior building assemblies and envelopes. These are a topic of research in MIT’s Center for Excitonics, an energy frontier research center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.  

Another research group at MIT, Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Lab took a different approach, separating wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum, some of which are visible light and other wavelengths not visible but still energy producing. The efficiency of these transparent panels is not as great as conventional solar panels, but partially and fully transparent solar panels can be integrated into windows in buildings and cover larger areas.

In terms of overall electricity potential, it’s estimated that there is an estimated five billion to seven billion square meters of glass surface in the U.S. With that much glass to cover, transparent solar technologies have the potential of supplying some 40% of energy demand in the U.S., about the same potential as rooftop solar units.

Given homebuyer preferences for expansive views from large panoramic windows, what better solution than employing smart glass for double duty performance to capture panoramic views and generate electricity during daylight hours, charging up a whole house battery, then drawing on its reserve throughout the evening. Faced with rising energy costs, European builders are using similar technologies to reduce the total installed KW panel arrays on rooftops and in garden privacy walls.

Level 3: Dynamic Glass Windows

Dynamic glass windows can help enhance indoor comfort while providing unobstructed views to the outside. In some applications, dynamic glass windows each with unique IP addresses allow occupant controlled shading through an electro-chemical process inside the glass. 

This light sensitive window glass can change from clear to tinted on demand to achieve various levels of shading without mechanical systems. Electromagnetic glass automatically tints when heat from direct sunlight warms the glass. The shading results in a lower solar gain (heat load) for the building. These features combine translucent functionality and energy efficiency in one elegant solution.

Level 4: Smart Home Technology 

Smart home technology solutions available to homebuyers have quickly gained traction in the market and continue to evolve in technical sophistication. They are seamlessly integrated by a unified digital platform. Several options are available and a convergence will likely occur as systems become standardized to service national homebuilders and their buyers. 

Builders need to select home tech manufacturers and system platforms based on four key elements: 

  1. Brand fit/client match. Is it a need or a want?
  2. Technical fit and ecosystem. Scalable for the homebuyers and open sourced.
  3. Ability to cover/service by existing trades.
  4. Training/marketing support from the vendors selected. 

 

Statistics presented recently at the Tech Home Builder Conference in Louisville, KY indicated that smart home technology increases sales velocity by 18-38 % and increases the value for single-family detached homes by 3-21%.  

Other Level 4 Solutions  

Remote mobile security is currently available in various markets as evidenced by numerous products integrating digital image, sound capture and two-way communications with access controls and emergency service provider notifications. 

Remote sensing functionality for lighting and HVAC systems integrates with the mobile security, allowing control of several house specific operating systems. This is like a programmable 24-hour setback thermostat, to mirror in-home occupant behaviors, which can operate remotely from your cell phone.  Sensors can also detect leaks or system trouble signals, alerting users to issues before major damage or complete failure occurs.

Level 5: Lifestyle Predictive Behaviors

Lifestyle predictive behaviors are a programmed set of parameters for all the above referenced technology solutions, which recognize changing needs over time. With the continuing evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI), level five predictive digital solutions may be next on the horizon.  

AI driven technology may sit in the background of our homes evaluating our behaviors and suggest solutions to help achieve good health goals. This could tie into community-wide themed programs for age-specific active adult master-planned communities with a wide array of physical and social recreational programs. 

Home specific examples include universal designs for aging in place. And even one step further is embracing bau-biologie, or healthy home designs to respect and respond to these age-related lifestyles.  We have learned that buyers fall into a variety of psycho-metric profiles which may lend themselves to level five integration of smart home solutions.

The nation’s building industry is experiencing a dramatic renaissance of innovation, driven by concurrent revolutions in digital data capture and green building practices. These trends have accelerated with the Covid pandemic, driving rapid adoption and diffusion of new technology. It is not surprising that solutions from Europe and elsewhere are being utilized in the U.S. and we expect to see wider scale adoption in the future. Thinking beyond these ideas, American builders are well positioned to take advantage of innovative product solutions from domestic research and development labs and from Europe as well. 

Don Neff is President of LJP Construction Services. LJP has been at the forefront of the quality assurance movement on behalf of builders and insurance clients for over 25 years. For more information, visit http://www.ljpltd.com.