Need to Know: Innovations in building science

Five eco-friendly features to keep an eye out for on your next house hunt.

Zero-net energy is the home improvement buzzword for a system that produces more energy than it consumes by harnessing energy from the wind, sun or Earth. Think of it as Captain Planet getting involved in building construction.

On this week’s “TechKnow,” Phil Torres and Cara Santa Maria spent the night in a pioneer, zero-net energy smart home designed by UC Davis and Honda. What they found was much more than a solar panel on the roof. Every single square inch of the home was deliberately designed in a sustainable way to work seamlessly together, from how the home heats and cools itself to the task lights that subtly flicker on when entering a room.

Beyond its automated and eco-friendly features, the Honda Smart Home is expertly designed to improve your health and overall well-being. According to the home’s project leader, Michael Koening, “A sustainable building is one thing. A sustainable home needs to focus on the comfort and health of the people who live there.”

Here are five innovative techniques in building science to look for on your next house hunt:

Passive design

One of the starting points for energy efficiency is to work with the sun. A passively designed home takes into consideration a site’s distinct climate conditions and is then oriented properly to provide free heat in the winter and cooling in the summer.

The Honda Smart Home taps into that unique solar geometry: the south-facing windows are optimized for heating and cooling, while the north-facing ones are oriented to maximize natural light. The home also comes with a solar panel on the roof, triple-glazed windows, and airtight building shell to keep you comfortable without having to touch a button.

Energy management

Inside the Honda Smart Home is a unique energy management system, called HEMS—the brains of the operation. There are 270 distinct channels tabulating every single flip of a switch and processing the data. Turn on a faucet—tick. Turn on the TV—tick. Turn off the lights—tick. The system is clicking away, talking to the grid, talking to the devices in the home, and is predicting the home’s energy use while always choosing the most efficient option. All of this information is readily accessible and controllable on a tablet.

Your home has always been trying to talk to you—now you can talk back.  

Radiant heating and cooling

Think of this system as the heart of the home. A radiant heating and cooling system distributes energy uniformly by circulating water through a network of pipes installed in the floors, walls and ceilings. A geothermal heat pump inside the home provides heating, cooling and hot water functions in one. Beneath the home are eight 20-feet deep boreholes that allow the geothermal pump inside the home to harness the earth’s natural convective powers.

This is a much more efficient and healthier system than conventional forced air systems—it eliminates duct losses, stops allergens from circulating throughout the home, and provides a much more comfortable atmosphere.

Circadian lighting

There’s a clock ticking inside you called your circadian rhythm, set to a 24-hour waking and sleep cycle. We are wired internally to need blue, bright light during the day to stay alert, and then warmer, red lights at night to wind down. A growing body of research in chronobiology has found that a disrupted circadian rhythm can have adverse health effects such as weight gain, depression and even bipolar disorder.

So Honda and UC Davis constructed a circadian sensitive home, taking health, safety, color quality and energy efficiency into consideration. It’s an all-LED home, without a fluorescent light bulb in sight. It comes with an automated panel that maximizes natural bright light during the day and windowshades that open and close at optimum times. The lighting system also has sensor technology that triggers amber LEDs along the stairwells so you don’t trip and fall on your way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Improved infrastructure

Concrete is the clutch player in building infrastructure—it’s the foundation for highways, bridges, dams, that sports stadium your favorite player bats in. But the environmental footprint of cement, the main ingredient in concrete, is pretty high, accounting for 5 percent of global CO2 emissions. The challenge? How to make good concrete by using less cement.

In an effort to slash emissions at its foundations, the Honda Smart Home incorporated Pozollan in the concrete mix, a naturally occurring material from volcanic ash. The phrase “do as the Romans do” aptly applies here: natural pozzolan deposits were part of the ancient concrete mix.  


Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.


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