Home Innovation Insights

The new student design "race to zero" could prove prolific in defining the future of home building.

Sam Rashkin
January 16, 2014

2014: A “Race to Zero” Odyssey

Every housing industry professional would love to know the future for a compelling business advantage. “Well you can predict the future accurately,” according to Daniel Burrus in his 2011 Flash Foresight. “All you have to do is leave out the parts you could be wrong about.”

Although this sounds like a joke, it is actually a powerful truth. That’s because there is so much we are certain about, if we look carefully. In fact, many hard trends define the housing industry’s visible future including:

  • increasing energy prices that have steadily climbed for decades
  • increasing cost-effectiveness of renewable energy as solar electric systems benefit from improved technology, manufacturing capabilities, and economies-of-scale
  • increasing energy efficiency with new products, and construction practices that accelerate home performance
  • increasing risk of moisture problems with better insulated assemblies that can no longer dry if they get wet
  • increasing health concerns with reduced natural infiltration due to tighter construction, greater exposure to dangerous chemicals in building materials, greater opportunities to backdraft gravity exhaust combustion equipment as a result of increased pressure imbalances and more exhaust fans, and more exposure to biological contaminants
  • increasing water crisis as more than half of the country experiences severe drought conditions
  • increasing disaster risks due to more extreme weather, natural events, and damaging pests affecting virtually the entire country
  • increasing population of informed consumers who know vastly more about products, prices, and performance before making purchase decisions
  • increasing innovation imperative as a growing population of consumers expect and embrace advanced technology and all that it can do for them

Every one of these trends is based on extensive facts and data. But more importantly, we all are aware of them instinctively and sense their imminent impact on the housing industry. And every one of them is effectively addressed by zero energy-ready construction, as defined by the DOE Challenge Home label. Consider the following value propositions zero energy homes provide American homebuyers:

  • peace-of-mind investing in a new home that won’t quickly become obsolete because it is built to account for forthcoming code changes
  • exciting affordability with ultra-low or no utility bills that feels like owning a car getting hundreds-of-miles per gallon
  • engineered comfort offering soothing temperatures and a level of quiet never experienced in prior homes
  • healthful living with key construction materials certified free of dangerous chemicals, a continuous fresh air system, and high-performance air filtration
  • tech savvy construction with advanced technologies, practices, and components throughout the home
  • quality assurance with independent inspections and testing of critical work, and higher grade equipment
  • enduring value that only comes from a home built to stand the test of time

Moreover, builders across the country are demonstrating they can provide this value at market-based prices where the incremental monthly mortgage attributed to zero energy-ready improvements is easily offset by monthly utility bill savings. In other words, a better home costs less to own; often, substantially less. This is why the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) believes zero energy-ready homes are the future; they address critical performance issues that will exceed consumer expectations and reduce builder risk.

Now, over 350 students from more than 30 different universities across the U.S. and Canada are competing in the first DOE Challenge Home Student Design Competition to show this home of the future is ready today. They are developing cost-effective, zero energy-ready home designs that can be easily adapted by mainstream builders. All of this ingenuity and creativity will come together at a three-day event beginning April 19, 2014, in Golden, Colorado. Student teams will present their designs to esteemed jurors, network with notable industry professionals, hear from thought leaders on their vision for the future of housing, and celebrate at an awards dinner where winners and grand winners will be announced.

The next generation of housing industry professionals has to be better trained to deliver the home of the future. The DOE Challenge Home Student Design Competition is part of this important transformation process toward creating better homes and communities. The nationwide benefits of cleaner air, large numbers of green jobs that cannot be outsourced, and greater energy security are just a bonus.

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Sam Rashkin, Chief Architect of DOE's Building Technologies Program and author of Retooling the U.S. Housing Industry: How It Got Here, Why It's Broken, and How to Fix It, manages the DOE Challenge Home Student Design Competition and is a guest blogger for Home Innovation Insights.

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