Part Two: A Glimpse of the Energy Future

Just 50 miles west of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) off Interstate 40 near Crossville, Tenn., 6,000 acres of woodland are about to be transformed into the kind of community that Jeff Christian once only dreamed of. Developers based in Overland Park, Kansas, have reached an agreement with ORNL for collaboration on Walden Reserve, a “green” residential development that would feature technologies tested and developed by ORNL’s Buildings Technology Center.

The development will be built in five phases and total about 7,000 houses marketed to retired and second home buyers. These homes will feature energy saving and generating technologies ORNL already has utilized in its near-zero-energy Habitat houses including solar technology, geothermal heat pumps, structural insulated panels and integrated plumbing walls.

If discussions between the Laboratory and developers bear fruit, the development would serve as a test site for energy-efficient and renewable energy generating technologies, expanding on the work begun with Habitat.

“There are 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day and a significant number of them are ‘green’ oriented,” says Tom Bray, president/CEO of Walden Reserve. “Half of the retirees who choose ‘green’ would be willing to pay more to live in a green community.” Not much more, he adds, saying that incorporating energy-efficient technology and design into what he describes as “mountain/craftsman style” homes will add 5% to 10% to the price tag, with buyers paying $350,000 and up for the homes, and somewhat less for a series of townhouses and condo units also on the drawing board.

As the community is designed and built over the next 20-25 years, Bray says, ORNL researchers would work in conjunction with developers to test and introduce new technologies, serving as a connecting point between Walden Reserve and product manufacturers “to demonstrate the feasibility and marketability” of emerging products. By the time the community is fully built, he says, the newer homes should achieve zero-energy status.

“We think this is a great opportunity for Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” Bray says. “We will be developing in conjunction with the Department of Energy. There are so many things we can do together.”

ORNL is also working with a Knoxville architecture firm to design and build a near-zero-energy spec house that could be duplicated in communities like Walden Reserve or other, more traditional, suburban and urban developments across the country. In addition to DOE and TVA funding, the state of Tennessee is also contributing to the project.

Elizabeth Eason, owner of the design firm Elizabeth Eason Architecture, says that designing custom homes with energy efficiency and power generating capabilities in mind has become reasonably commonplace and is on the rise. The next step, she says, is to take the concept to more traditional residential developers for easy duplication. Christian is hoping that one of these homes can break ground during this year’s festivities for the 25th anniversary of the Knoxville World’s Fair. The theme in 1982? “Energy Turns the World.”

A Change of Mind
Approaching construction from a sustainable perspective is nothing new for European nations or countries such as Japan. In the U.S., however, cheap labor and cheap power have allowed traditional “stick construction” practices to remain unchanged for decades.

The problem, Christian says, is that consumers are unaccustomed to thinking about the energy their homes and offices demand. They simply pay the bills. But Christian says when he describes the Habitat development and the potential impact of even moderate energy saving measures in the frequent meetings and seminars he attends, audiences respond very personally.

“I have noticed that when I tell people that these new houses have energy costs of approximately 50 cents a day, they tend to think about their own homes,” Christian says. “People respond to the idea. They just need education and awareness.”

Kim Charles did not ponder energy efficiency until she agreed to become the recipient of the fourth Habitat home in the Lenoir City community more than three years ago. However, since she has moved from her old, drafty house where utility bills sometimes climbed above $200 for a single month, Charles, and especially her young son, Brian, take more time to do little things that conserve energy, such as keep the lights off when the sun is coming through the window.

Charles loves her home, not just for the energy savings technologies but also for its cathedral ceiling, the windows that let in plenty of sunlight, the neighborhood that provides Brian a chance to play with friends. “My home is brighter and more cheerful than my old house,” she says. “This is just a great place to live.”

Charles has also become accustomed to a sort of celebrity that comes with owning a home where one pays as little as 40 cents per day to keep the lights on and the washer running. She’ll often look out her window to see parades of students, industry representatives, government officials and media passing by-or knocking on her door … trying to catch a glimpse of the future.

Larissa Brass, senior science communicator at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, writes and edits articles for the ORNL Review and other internal and external publications. 

This article was adapted from the original that first appeared in the ORNL Review, and was republished with permission from Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

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