Penn College Centennial Colloquia Series: Sustainable and affordable home building

The Pennsylvania College of Technology launched its Centennial Colloquia Series Thursday night, with a presentation on sustainable and affordable home building.

Presenters Dorothy Gerring and Rob Wozniak, associate professors of architectural technology, painted a vivid picture of current energy trends and their impact.

“Residential homes account for 21 percent of the energy use in this country,” Gerring said. “That’s a high number.”

Forty-four percent of that usage, she said, comes from burning coal, which has caused the amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere to increase to more than 380 parts per million – another high number.

“That’s the highest it’s been in over 650,000 years of our planet’s history,” she said.

High carbon dioxide levels can have serious environmental effects such as increased pollution and ocean acidification.

It’s one of the reasons why building or refurbishing homes with eco-friendly materials, more efficient heating and water systems, and alternative energy sources has increased in popularity in recent years, Gerring said.

However, for a significantly higher number of people to do so, it’s going to take “radical change.”

“We need everyone in on this,” she said. “Designers, builders and consumers.”

Wozniak agreed.

“The meter only runs one way with traditional fossil fuels, and that’s up,” he said. “We need to reverse the trend.”

To that end, several Building Science and Sustainable Design majors – Michelle Holzmann, Max Davert and Michael Engel – presented their entry into the first-ever U.S. Department of Energy Challenge Home Student Design Competition.

The international contest accepts submissions from teams of college students who design, plan and analyze a building that uses energy efficient products and construction.

Through a combination of design elements, such as situating windows at certain angles to maximize natural light and heat; energy-efficient systems, like an energy recovery ventilator in place of a traditional heating and air conditioning system; and solar array panels, to generate electricity, the students created an 1,188 square-foot building that provides ample space for a family of three and drastically reduces energy costs.

The ultimate goal of the contest, Gerring said, is for a home design that produces as much energy as it uses, resulting in “zero net energy costs – no heating bill, no cooling bill, no electric bill.”

Penn College entered two teams into the competition, with one – Team Blue – moving on as one of five finalists to have their home constructed in Denver in the summer of 2015.

It’s not just the positive impact on the environment that sustainable energy and eco-friendly materials offer to homebuilders, either – it can have a positive impact on a bank account as well.

The home that Team Blue designed reduced the home’s annual heating costs to just $57 and cooling costs to only $16, Wozniak noted, and would cost roughly $180,000 to build.

For existing homes, Wozniak said, making small but significant changes can result in savings right away – but first, have an energy audit performed on the home.

An audit will give a clear picture of the energy use of the home and where heat might be escaping, he said. Then, a homeowner can choose the areas that they want to improve, based on factors like cost.

Making small changes, however, can result in changes right away, he said.

“Up to 10 percent of your energy cost every month is because of ‘phantom loads,’ ” he said, referring to the electricity that is used when an appliance is plugged in but not turned on.

Using a power strip for several appliances or gadgets, rather than plugging them into their own outlets, is a simple way to bring that cost down, he said.

Other ideas include using foam insulation in crawl spaces, caulking the exteriors of window and door frames or replacing old windows.

The next installment in the series will be at 7 p.m. on March 17 at the Klump Academic Center Auditorium, when Jaron Lanier will speak.

All presentations are free and open to the public.