Environment-friendly homes to be shown at China’s Future House

WASHINGTON — The future of American housing is rising in (pause here for effect) … Beijing.

As in China?

Yup. The house is being built as part of the Future House demonstration project commissioned by China’s Ministry of Construction to show off the world’s most modern and environmentally sustainable construction practices and technologies.

The United States is one of 10 countries participating in the project, but the U.S. entry is the only one not sponsored by a government or corporate entity. The other participants include Sweden, Japan, South Korea, China, Spain, Germany, Great Britain, Canada and Norway.

The 10 houses will be on display for six years, including this year’s Summer Olympics. Organizers anticipate that more than 5 million visitors will see them.

A consortium that includes the Warrenville, Ill.-based Alternative Energy Living Foundation as principal managing sponsor, Florida International University as founding academic sponsor and the National Defense Council Foundation as the main general sponsor is backing the American entry.

Strictly an American product, Future House USA is a 3,200-square-foot structure with four bedrooms and four baths. That’s a tad large for homes of the future, especially in light of today’s higher energy costs and other environmental concerns. But it didn’t start out that way.

“When we began, it was supposed to be 1,500 square feet,” says George Bialecki, the Moline, Ill., builder who founded the Alternative Energy Living Foundation and is responsible for building the U.S. entry. “But they came to us and asked us to make it bigger so each visitor could feel comfortable touring the house.”

But big is still an American trait, at least for the time being. And while the house integrates the Chinese practice of feng shui, the futuristic design pays homage to Frank Lloyd Wright, the Midwestern architect whom Bialecki agrees “was way before his time.”

In addition, all the building materials and products are made in this country. And the house itself was manufactured in Montana, shipped in eight containers on a barge sailing from Portland, Ore., and is being assembled, in part, by Bialecki’s uncles and cousins, all carpenters who volunteered to spend a month in Beijing to put the place together.

“This is a grassroots effort,” says the builder, who is putting up some of the most environmentally advanced and energy-efficient houses in the United States. “It’s about American jobs, design jobs, engineering jobs, architectural work and manufacturing jobs. ‘Made in the USA’ is a very important aspect of this project to us.”

One of the more interesting products is the “solar-operated” motion faucets that are used to cut water consumption. The bathroom lights, not powered by a battery or electricity, run them. And the aluminum roofing eliminates the granular runoff that occurs with asphalt shingles.

“You can basically drink from the roof,” says the builder.

The Future House program is designed to promote energy-saving strategies and construction that will have a minimal impact on the global environment. Which is one reason that China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is sponsoring the demonstration project.

Another reason that China has taken the lead is that while its economy has undergone a dramatic transformation, and the country is now a major participant in the global markets, one sector that has not kept pace is housing. “The need for housing is huge, especially in emerging countries like China,” Bialecki says.

As a result, nearly five years ago, the construction ministry authorized the Future House project to demonstrate the latest concepts in renewable-energy sources, modern conservation technologies, environmental compatibility and sustainable construction practices from around the world.

Bialecki agrees it is ironic that the future of American housing is being displayed in a foreign country. But he says it’s more about the collaborative effort that’s taking place than the location. “If we don’t work together (to save the environment) as a global community,” he says, “the ramifications will be felt throughout the world.”

Bialecki, who resides in Chicago, built the nation’s first Energy Star-rated assisted-living community in the United States. Next, he built the first Energy Star adult community. Energy Star is the joint Environmental Protection Agency-Energy Department program to help consumers recognize energy-efficient products.

Future House USA incorporates the five elements of what its builder labels Home Biology 101 — energy efficiency, indoor air quality, water consumption, storm-water management and construction recycling.

Describing houses as living organisms that breathe, absorb environmental elements and produce waste, Bialecki says that by integrating all five aspects, houses can be up to 85 percent energy efficient, use half as much water per person, remove much of the pollutants from indoor air, eliminate storm drains altogether and recycle much of the construction waste normally sent to landfills.

Moreover, the Marquette University graduate says he can achieve these results while maintaining construction costs roughly 16 percent below those of conventional builders.

Future House includes the following features:

— Energy efficiency: 85 percent of the heating and air conditioning is produced from geothermal heat pumps, while the roofing system employs an air space and reflective heat barrier that reduces attic heat buildup and improves airflow. By using 2-by-6 wall studs and cellulose insulation, R-values of 50 are achieved in the attic and 23 in the walls. Special high-performance windows have an R-value of 8.5, more than twice the average.

— Indoor air quality: Doors and cabinets are made from renewable, natural resources with volatile organic compounds, and all carpeting is made from post-consumer recycling products, to prevent off-gassing. Only zero-VOC paints and low-VOC adhesives are used in construction. Hard-surface floors are renewable bamboo or cork.

Also, energy-recovery ventilators reduce both heating and cooling loads and improve air quality, while whole-house purifiers eliminate chemicals, chlorine, odors and bacteria from the air. And garages are outfitted with a carbon-monoxide removal system.

— Water consumption: Dual-flush water closets trim water usage by a third compared to conventional toilets. Adjustable showerheads, motion-sensing faucets, pedal valves at the kitchen sink and front-loading washing machines also cut water waste. Rain barrels collect water for gardens and lawns.

Upon complete implementation, Bialecki says the entire system reduces water consumption by up to half that used in a typical residence.

— Storm-water management: Driveways and streets are made of permeable pavers to eliminate the need for storm drains. Rather than flowing down and out over solid pavement, rainwater is allowed to seep into the ground — eliminating runoff, pollution and standing water.

A stone-coated, recycled aluminum and zinc roof eliminates polluting particle runoff that occurs with asphalt shingles. And barrels capture the rain runoff.

— Recycling: A typical 2,000-square-foot house produces some 8,000 pounds of construction waste. But Bialecki says he can capture 60 percent of that for reuse for soil control and mulch.

Lew Sichelman has been covering real estate for more than 30 years. He is a regular contributor to numerous shelter magazines and housing and housing finance industry publications.

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