Suburban Retrofit: Consumption vs. Production


We all accept that any home built before 1980 probably consumes energy rather than produces. And we know that most buildings today aren’t much better. Some dabble in industry-tested, user-approved microcosms of water conservation and energy production, and even fewer have thrown away the sound bites of “first cost” and “investment return” and have dove head first into responsible yet expensive net zero homes. Interestingly, The Center for Green Buildings and Cities at Harvard is exploring a strategy that may end up making a huge difference in the average home owner’s ability to achieve energy and water independence. They are currently experimenting with retrofitting a pre-1940’s home to attain net zero. The measures for success will be varied and at this point will still act as a testing grounds for possibilities.

Currently, our record on energy and water independence has been dismal. This is not surprising when one thinks that the sustainable revolution is still in its infancy across the globe, with small pockets of development and investment sprouting in more economically advantageous scenarios. However, it is clear that energy and water independence will define our next 100 years, bringing along with it stories of success as well as unavoidable and devastating consequences of our delayed responses. This is not a hopeless story, rather a wake-up call. It is up to each of us to care for ourselves, our ecosystems and the underprivileged majority who when confronted with the choice of sustainable or regular, cannot afford the morally correct option. It is up to us to redefine “regular”.

Ali Malkawi, the director of Harvard’s Center for Green Buildings and Cities (CGBC) hangs huge hopes on small changes that can ultimately convert millions of homes from consumption objects to more responsible, productive entities. The CGBC states:

Our research team intends to demonstrate that through a combination of state-of-the-shelf and state-of-the-art technology, this building can produce more energy than it consumes, serve as a learning center for students, and provides a test bed for new technologies. The aim is that outcomes of processes, systems, materials, etc. can be applied to other homes and buildings.



The premise is promising, however, one metric that will be critical will be affordability. I’m 35, an architect, I don’t own a home and my wife and I rent an apartment in Brooklyn. We would love to buy a house, but today, student loans, market instability, etc. makes home ownership less appealing. We would love to buy a house and retrofit it to become net zero, but when looking at the affordable options, the more “regular” homes with low first cost and high (but manageable) energy bills, we find the only “zero” involved is that there are zero sustainable features. While there is a very large pre-existing housing stock waiting for upgrades, most of us would like to see an upgrade to our salaries before we start working on our homes. This leaves the Center for Green Buildings and Cities with a difficult challenge ahead, one that needs to work. It may be decades before we see a redefinition of “regular” buildings, but institutions like CGBC are certainly headed in the right direction.


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