Posted by: Li Ling Young | May 13, 2015

Active House or Active People?

I find myself on the other side of the line dividing the heating-dominated climate and the cooling-dominated climate. I’m not oblivious to the cultural implications of this line, but what’s really standing out to me at the moment is the way I’m interacting with this house.

Last year a neighbor asked me about going all electric with his home, as his furnace had just been given last rites. He and his wife are professionals with two active school-aged children. My first response as I stood in the grocery isle talking to him, was a caution about how involved one wants to be with one’s home. The technologies we used to cobble together our zero energy home aren’t what I’d consider ready for primetime. Everything works just great, but nothing is integrated. And if we want to be comfortable we have to anticipate and prepare. Not everyone wants this kind of relationship with their home, especially if you have a lot of other stuff going on. At the first mention of having to keep track of the weather and make decisions about how to setup the house, my neighbor said, “Not for us.” He made a decision about his house standing there in the grocery isle that would have taken me six months of agonizing to come to.

Indeed we are the brains of our house, which probably doesn’t seem weird considering that we actually have brains and the house actually doesn’t. But most houses really do operate of their own accord, making decisions without assistance from the brain-endowed occupants. The automated systems in the house are there so we humans don’t have to make it all happen. Nonetheless, in our low-energy house we are much more involved.

We’re still on some part of the learning curve, so I wouldn’t say everything is perfect even when we are applying our brains to the house. But here’s a sample of the kinds of things we consider on a daily basis:

  • Season – we arrange the house differently depending on what season it is
  • Window position – seems obvious in the winter, but where should they be if it’s going to be 90 deg F out?
  • Sun – sunny winter day may mean we should not use the woodstove in the living room
  • Curtains – block summer sun, but not winter sun; but don’t bother if it’s cloudy
  • Temperature forecast – don’t let the house temperature drift if it’s going to be wickedly cold or hot
  • Ventilation – lots when it’s mild out, but almost none when it’s wickedly hot or cold
  • Basement temperature – do we need to change what the heat pump water heater is doing, or start using the basement woodstove to prevent the basement being too cold in the spring?
  • Snow cover – if the solar panels are covered and it’s going to be sunny, get out the roof broom!

Sound like a ridiculous amount of fussing? I’ve heard this from a building scientist, “Passive occupants need active houses, but passive houses need active occupants.” Meaning, the less you want your house to do, the more you are going to need to get involved. Ridiculous indeed if it’s a higher priority to have a house that tends to itself than a house that sips daintily at the energy well. Like my neighbors with the lightning fast decision, most really need their home to carry its own weight. And here’s yet another way our daintily-sipping house is a freakshow: Nik and I are running around like the wizard behind the curtain, pulling levers, setting up the blinking lights, adjusting angles, making the steam come out…

Here, in this other place, I find myself astonished that folks don’t know what the weather forecast is. This time of year I’m desperate for fresh air, but this house is shut up tight with the air conditioner running and the indoor humidity like a Turkish bath. Active house yes, even to the point of enforcing passivity on the occupants. When the weather took a decisive turn for the mild I begged to open the windows and got a quizzical look in return, “Should we turn the air conditioner off?”

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