By Shonda Novak
It looks like it could take off. And the two Austin architects developing a prototype for an off-the-grid house designed to save as much energy as it consumes hope their project does just that, figuratively speaking.
Trademarked as the ZeroHouse, Scott Specht and Louise Harpman's compact modular structure shouts "futuristic," from the composting unit beneath it to the solar panels on the roof. It looks as if it could be housing for space pioneers, but Specht and Harpman have their sights set on planet Earth for its first occupant.
The ZeroHouse design is on the cutting edge of the green building movement: so-called net-zero houses that generate as much energy as they use over the course of a year and handle all or most of their own water and wastewater needs. They are built with renewable materials and advanced energy- and water-conservation features.
The net-zero concept is not yet mainstream, but it's growing. Examples include a zero-energy house in Edmonton, Alberta, and the SOL development in East Austin, where developers ultimately will build 40 homes with features such as solar panels and energy-efficient designs.
Specht and Harpman's design takes the concept to its limits, including the fact that it is prefabricated and sits on four stainless-steel anchors that allow the house to be installed without excavating the site, reducing its environmental impact even more.
It is designed to operate with no connections to external sources of power or water.
"The off-grid model has the most challenges, so that's the test case we designed for," Specht said. "We think that the value is in the complete self-sufficiency, the absolutely minimal environmental and site impact, and the fact that this would be a model for what can be done” a 'first adapter' demonstration of the ultimate in green living."
Specht and Harpman, who are divorced but share an architectural practice, said they received seed money from a New York investment firm to produce the architectural drawings and the structural and mechanical engineering documents.
Now the house is "shovel-ready," said its creators, both of whom have master's degrees in architecture from Yale University. They are in search of a "visionary" investor to finance the $300,000 to $350,000 construction of the prototype and live in its 650 square feet of interior space, with 250 square feet of outdoor covered decks.
Harpman said Austin is suited to finding just the right investor because the city is forward-thinking and encourages risk-taking” "and risks get rewards."
"We believe Austin is the center of the new green economy," Specht said, "and we believe that the ZeroHouse could be an appropriate symbol of the city's status as the green city of the future."
They started a practice in New York, branching out to Austin in 2003 when Harpman joined the University of Texas School of Architecture as an associate professor.
They said the house would be ideal for a guest or vacation house, an ecotourism resort; or for living or office use by the military, government, relief agencies, or as mining or construction workers in remote areas.
"The idea behind the ZeroHouse was to develop a residence that is both extremely green and energy-neutral, and yet has all the comforts that would be expected in a hotel, vacation getaway or home," Specht said.
Specht has been working on his "labor of love" for the past decade between paying projects, including some that he and Harpman have done for St. Edward's University.
The ZeroHouse has been on the cover of Texas Architect Magazine and featured in publications including Dwell, Wallpaper, Urban Land and nearly 50 others worldwide, Specht and Harpman said.
Although small, the house uses every square inch of its space.
"People think they need a bigger house, but they may just need a better designed one," Harpman said.
The ZeroHouse generates power from solar panels; it collects, filters and stores rainwater in four 550-gallon cisterns for drinking and other uses; and it processes all waste in an automated composting unit. It has triple-paned windows and a high-efficiency air-conditioning and heating system.
The house is prefabricated for easy shipping and installing, including in shallow water or on slopes of up to 35 degrees.
Specht said the house drew interest from two men who had a builder ready to construct it on a site they had chosen in Hawaii. But the prospective clients wanted to make some changes, including upgrading its exterior to stainless steel, that were a deal-breaker.
"We told them that's like taking an iPod and adding a toaster," Specht said. "This is engineered to work as is."
Not only is it "net zero" with regard to energy, Specht said, "but all appliances, electronics and other items were selected or designed to be extremely efficient, so that the 'miscellaneous electric use' is reduced dramatically," Specht said.
Its interior finishes were chosen for looks as well as durability, and can be customized with different materials and colors. Natural-fiber fabrics and carpet are used throughout.
David Springer, co-founder and president of Davis Energy Group, a California-based engineering firm specializing in energy efficiency and renewables, said the ZeroHouse "is a bit futuristic and might be difficult to market." Although he would make some changes, Springer said the house includes "elements that make sense," including its prefabricated construction.
Michael Webber, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UT and co-director of the Clean Energy Incubator at UT, said residential and commercial buildings account for more than three-fourths of all the energy consumed in the U.S.
Webber, who is familiar with the ZeroHouse, said its architects are "basically tackling one of the biggest parts of the energy problem, which is the built environment."
"When we get society's best designers tackling society's biggest problems, that's a good sign, and it's cause for celebration," he said.
Webber said energy-efficient, green-built homes tend to cost more upfront but are more cost-effective in the long run.
Roger Duncan, general manager of Austin Energy, said he thinks the ZeroHouse "is one of the best examples of a net-zero energy home I have seen, and the architects should be commended."
Duncan said Austin is a leader in the zero-energy movement, and has set a goal of requiring all new single family homes to be zero energy capable starting in 2015. He emphasized the word "capable," noting that in some areas, because of trees or how the lot is situated, it won't be possible to put enough solar panels on the roof to generate all the energy the house needs.
The initial costs of the ZeroHouse are high, partly because it's a prototype, Specht said: "With production in quantity, the costs are projected to come down significantly."
For the ZeroHouse to operate off the grid, Specht said, "there is a significant amount of technology involved that would not be found in a typical home," including heat exchangers, water storage tanks, filtration systems and the like.
However, if the house were connected to a grid, which its design allows, "a number of costly items could be eliminated."
But the point is to be grid-free.
As for those who may say the house is too far out there, well, that's by design.
Specht said he and Harpman wanted to take the same approach as leading-edge design does today for consumer products like smart phones, computers and automobiles, integrating highly engineered products within a "forward-thinking outer envelope."
"Rather than putting the technology into a traditional-looking 'home,' we wanted the outer appearance of the house to showcase the technologies that make the house function the way it does," said Specht, noting that he and Harpman have always been inspired by "visionary home displays” from the 'houses of the future' that were a staple of World's Fairs to the recent show of prefabricated houses at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
And Harpman said the house "isn't an 'ivory tower' idea, but is directly applicable to real-life, everyday issues." UT even lent direct support, covering her salary for a semester so she could pursue research and design for the project, and hiring others to teach her courses.
"Our generation is leading this," Harpman said of the sustainable-building movement. "The decisions we make personally have so many implications. The future is now."