June 26, 2017

Purdue researchers looking to improve net-zero housing

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Low-income families typically dedicate three times as much of their household income to energy costs than the average family. Purdue University political science professor Leigh Raymond is leading a team that is researching a way to make energy-efficient housing and transportation more affordable for these families.

The team’s approach includes new integrated energy modeling tools, smart home and vehicle management technologies and communication and resident engagement strategies.

“We’re looking at the ways you can have the potential for additional energy savings and also improvements in the quality of life of residents by thinking about their transportation needs as a part of their overall energy budget,” Raymond says.

This research is based in Purdue’s Discovery Park, a research park dedicated to using interdisciplinary teams to solve global problems. Raymond and his team are working in partnership with the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority and the Indianapolis consulting firm Energy Systems Network (ESN). The Purdue team includes faculty from the Discovery Park Center for the Environment (C4E), Center for Open Digital Innovation and NEXTRANS center along with the Purdue Center for High Performance Buildings.

Raymond cites research indicating that current housing and transportation options are costly both financially and environmentally, especially on low-income families. He notes that approximately 20 percent of the United States’ carbon pollution comes from the residential sector. Therefore, improvements in energy and transportation would improve the lives of low-income families and reduce the carbon footprint. 

Raymond points out that 25 percent of the residential housing stock are renters in multifamily buildings, but there is not a lot of work being done regarding energy efficient housing and transportation for multifamily developments. Specifically, there are not a lot of energy solutions that result in the energy used by a building being less than or equal to the amount of renewable energy created on site, known as net-zero energy solutions.

The work Raymond and his team is doing could reduce energy and transportation costs for low-income families to 45 percent of their total income and significantly reduce air pollution. Part of what makes this research novel is the focus on transportation as a part of net-zero housing. Raymond points out that considering transportation needs plays a big role in determining energy usage overall.

“We’re really looking at the big picture. It’s housing, but it’s also transportation ... and that’s different than most examples of net-zero housing,” he says.

The integrated energy modeling tools will be used to determine ideal combinations of energy-efficient options and renewable energy for different housing developments says James Braun, the Herrick Professor of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Center for High Performance Buildings, who is also working on the project.  Braun notes that the creation of these new tools is important not only for creating these current developments but also for future net-zero housing initiatives.

“It’s about developing tools that will help you to make it more economical to design and build net-zero communities,” Braun says.

The smart home and vehicle management technologies will assist residents in understanding and managing their home energy usage. These technologies would include smart devices such as thermostats, energy meters, new user interfaces and home energy management systems. Raymond’s team also will create new algorithms that would help maximize energy potential.

Concerning vehicle management, Raymond anticipates utilizing a small car-sharing program, likely consisting of electric cars. Braun and Raymond point out that the cars could also be helpful to finding a local energy solution through storing solar energy or integrating the interfaces present on the cars for other household energy management.

The new communication and resident engagement strategies will enable residents to reduce energy consumption but maintain their quality of life, an important area of research in environmental social science and energy policy. Being able to engage with residents and receive feedback concerning their lifestyles and energy choices is essential in designing efficient net-zero housing, Raymond says.

“Different people really respond to different kinds of feedback, so we’re going to be looking at both visual and audio feedback tailored to each resident,” he says.

These new designs and technologies will be field tested in four new housing developments being planned. The first two will be built in Bloomington, Indiana, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. After researchers have gained important insights from these developments, work will begin on developments in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Lafayette, Indiana. The developers of these complexes will work with the housing authority to determine which low-income families will be part of these field testing locations.

This research project was one of the winners of Discovery Park’s Big Idea Challenge, a program that provides resources to interdisciplinary teams with innovative research. This focus on interdisciplinary research is vital to the implementation of the team’s work. A critical part of the team’s research is the relationship between technology and use, which is called a socio-technical approach.

“You just can’t solve these problems with exclusively technical solutions. We could engineer better systems, but if you aren’t thinking about the people using those systems, you’re not going to solve the problem,” Raymond says. “At the same time, we can also come up with great ways to communicate with residents, but if we don’t have the technology to implement those strategies, we can’t solve the problem either.”

Raymond and Braun both echoed the importance of their external partners such as the housing authority, ESN and several affordable housing developers in regard to the success of their research.

 “We are really grateful that the housing authority and ESN approached Purdue to help implement this vision for affordable net-zero housing and provide this exciting research opportunity,” says Raymond.

 Overall, everyone involved is excited to be doing something that will benefit a lot of people.

“I think it’s really unique that we’re doing something that’s really real, where there’s a great opportunity to do good but also doing some fundamental research,” Braun says.

About Discovery Park

Discovery Park is an open laboratory for interdisciplinary collaboration at Purdue focused on the grand challenges of global health, global security and those that lie at the nexus of sustainable energy, world food supply and the environment. Large-scale interdisciplinary research is carried out in Discovery Park with an emphasis to drive innovations to the marketplace. Faculty, students and staff gain experience and access to the University’s entrepreneurial programs.

Writer: Grace Winn, 765-496-2993, gwinn@purdue.edu 

Sources: Leigh Raymond, 765-494-4182, lraymond@purdue.edu

James Braun, 765 49-49157, jbraun@purdue.edu 

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