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Tina Casey headshot

NIST "Net Zero" Could Revolutionize Home Construction, If We Let It

If you've never heard of the National Institute of Standards and Technology before, now is the time to check out this obscure arm of the Commerce Department and see what it's been up to. NIST has just officially opened a new energy laboratory called the Residential Net-Zero Test Facility, which is designed to look and feel just like an ordinary four-bedroom, three-bathroom suburban home. The lab will help develop better methods for measuring the impact of new home energy technologies in real life conditions.

The ultimate goal is to encourage the building industry to transition more quickly into more sustainable construction and design standards. That seems like a reasonable goal that serves the public interest, right? However, a movement against planning for sustainable development has been growing in the U.S., and NIST could be setting itself up as the next target. Yes, we're talking about Agenda 21...

First, a word about Agenda 21

Agenda 21 refers to a set of voluntary guidelines established by the United Nations to promote sustainable development. Within the past few years it has become the target of demonstrations at local planning meetings in the U.S., even over mundane issues such as bicycle paths and tree plantings.

What at first seemed like the hysterical reaction of a few neighborhood kooks has grown to a groundswell of anti-planning activism in communities across the U.S., characterized by the kind of ugly, over-the-top rage that dominated town hall meetings during the summer of 2010, when the main issue was health care.

This time around, the gist of the complaint is that local sustainability initiatives are all part of a vast U.N. conspiracy to control American life. Translate that onto sustainable building standards and you've got a real problem on your hands.

NIST forges ahead with new energy efficiency laboratory

Nevertheless, in the reality-based world, modern commerce could not function without standards, and private industry depends on government agencies like NIST to bring all the stakeholders to the table.

Net zero generally refers to buildings that consume no more energy than they can generate from renewable sources, and the building industry is already beginning to recognize that net-zero construction is the wave of the future. One example is Meritage Homes, one of the industry's largest players, which introduced a line of net zero production homes last year.

With that in mind, NIST worked with the standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council for LEED Platinum certification to develop the new laboratory.

The focus of this unique test bed is to come up with new standards of measurement, which will enable manufacturers to see how new technologies can best complement each other in context. As a baseline, for its first year of operation the lab will be vacant. A rooftop solar installation will provide electricity while household systems will run as if a family of four occupies the house.

If the house functions as predicted it will draw electricity from the grid during inclement weather, but on a yearly basis its solar array is large enough to make up the difference.

Planning for an energy efficient future

Put electrical, HVAC and plumbing systems in the context of fire hazards and water contamination, and the need for some level of universal standardization is face-palmingly obvious.

NIST points out that the same mindset needs to apply to energy efficient construction, as tighter buildings and new appliance technologies require more precise attention to healthy ventilation. That is one area that the new net-zero lab will address.

What the anti-planning crowd seems to have trouble with is translating the benefits of a safe, healthy home of their own, to healthier communities and a safer, more secure nation.

In this regard, NIST notes that buildings account for 40% of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and a correspondingly huge chunk of its energy consumption. By transitioning to new energy technologies, the building industry can play a significant role in reducing U.S. dependency on imported energy and helping to reduce our entanglements in unstable regions of the world.

NIST's new laboratory is in fact just one small part of massive public-private effort to improve energy efficiency in both new and existing buildings, spearheaded by the launch last year of the Obama Administration's Better Buildings Initiative.

NIST highlights the cooperation of the National Science and Technology Council with leading trade organizations like the American Institute of Architects and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineers as well as the Office of Budget and Management, which has directed federal agencies to "prioritize investments in the research and development of clean energy technologies, especially solar energy, next-generation biofuels, and sustainable green buildings and building retrofit technologies."

NIST also cites the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has found that "buildings offer the largest share of cost-effective opportunities for greenhouse gas mitigation."

Did we just say United Nations? Cue the sirens...

But seriously, given all the new economic activity (read: new jobs) generated by new energy technologies right now, and the potential to generate far more, it would be a damn shame if a minority of hardcore malcontents succeed in grinding future sustainability planning to a halt.

Image: Residential Net-Zero Test Facility courtesy of NIST.

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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