Two 'green' houses going up at UT-Tyler

September 13, 2011 5:59:24 AM PDT
At first glance, the two houses going up at The University of Texas at Tyler campus appear just like any other. They have brick exterior, glass windows, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen.

They have brick exterior, glass windows, three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen.

But appearances can be deceiving.

The two structures near the west entrance of the campus are research houses paid for with grant funds from the Governor's Emerging Technology Fund and built for the Texas Allergy, Indoor Environment and Energy Institute based at UT-Tyler.

The houses will provide a place to showcase and analyze new technologies that can create energy-efficient and healthful indoor environments.

They are just the latest endeavor of TxAIRE, an institute created in 2007 to be a "catalyst and facilitator of high-tech economic development in East Texas," according to its website.

By working with industry, the institute is creating partnerships it hopes will speed up the commercialization of new technologies in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) and "green building" markets, the website reads.

East Texas is well-poised for this type of endeavor because of the combination of respiratory health research, major HVAC manufacturing facilities, and construction management and building engineering programs, according to the website.

Through the construction of these two 1,500-square-foot houses, TxAIRE will be able to showcase new technologies and evaluate their effectiveness.

During a recent tour of the houses, TxAIRE executive director John Vasselli discussed their importance and impact.

Although a lot of research houses exist around the country and world, they typically present an expensive and impractical option for actual homebuyers. They function primarily as a research exercise, Vasselli said.

The goal with the UT-Tyler houses is to make them affordable, "normal" in appearance and practical, Vasselli said.

House 1, nicknamed the "Tyler House," provides an example of how an existing house could be retrofitted.

Dr. Roy Crawford, director of research and technology development at TxAIRE, said the house uses technologies already on the market and is designed to be 30 percent more energy efficient than the houses built in the past 20 years.

House 1 would cost about $115 per square foot, putting it at $172,500.

House 2, nicknamed "Patriot House," is designed to showcase the best available products, not all of which are on the market yet, and develop next-generation technologies, according to information from UT-Tyler.

It is designed to operate at 50 percent more energy efficiency than existing houses and has the potential to operate on net-zero energy consumption, meaning it produces as much energy as it uses. It would cost about $135 per square foot, putting it at $202,500, Crawford said.

TxAIRE spent about $500,000 combined for the houses because they installed multiple heating, cooling and lighting devices as well as additional equipment to conduct the research.

House 1's energy efficiency stems from several factors. It is built "tighter," meaning less air leakage. It also has better insulation and higher efficiency heating and cooling units than typical houses, Crawford said.

It features high-performance windows with advanced window treatments; a vented attic with advanced ventilator options; ducted and ductless air-source heat pumps; heat pump water heaters; advanced humidity control; and energy storage. It also features a skylight and shingles that reflect 10 percent of sunlight.

House 2 is designed to showcase the best available products, not all of which are on the market, and develop next-generation technologies, according to information from TxAIRE.

This house includes solar photo-voltaic cells, which convert sunlight to electricity; solar thermal water heating; solar light tubes; an unvented attic; and shingles that reflect at least 40 percent of sunlight.

The house also includes mechanical ventilation with energy recovery; advanced framing techniques which required 13 percent less lumber and allowed for 50 percent more insulation; air-source and ground-source heat pumps; and a whole-house dehumidifier.

The technologies installed in both houses will provide researchers with a test environment.

Each house has many sensors installed throughout to collect data from the multiple heating, cooling and lighting systems.

Crawford said the goal is to analyze the installed options to determine which ones operate most efficiently and are worth the extra cost up front.

"You hear a lot of things from different homeowners and builders on what's the best way to build a house," Crawford said. "A lot of things are conflicting. They can't all be right. We hope to analyze these options and determine what are the best and why and make that information available to homeowners."

He said as long as they can find new technologies to study and the funding to do it, they will keep using the houses.

If they do stop research at some point, the houses could be used as offices. They are the property of the state because UT-Tyler is a public university.

Anwar Khalifa, owner of Pyramid Homes, the company building both houses, said building tighter houses for greater energy efficiency makes it a challenge to maintain good air quality because there typically is less air circulation.

With the humidity created by people cooking, showering and simply breathing, it increases the potential for mold buildup, Khalifa said.

However, builders combat this by selecting so-called green materials that don't emit as many pollutants, Crawford said. They also ventilate the house properly and use air cleaners that remove dust particles from the air.

In House 2, special sheetrock actually absorbs and breaks down volatile organic compounds, or VOCS, which are emitted as gases from numerous products such as paints, lacquers, cleaning supplies, building materials, printers, and more.

Vasselli said it's been rewarding to hear from the framers, plumbers, and roofers who appreciate some of the new and different techniques the builders are using.

Khalifa said his company already has made changes to some of their construction techniques because of this project.

Vasselli said 76 Texas-based companies have contributed products at this point. TxAIRE made every attempt to source locally.

Trane is the leading industry partner to date. In addition to donating its newest equipment, the company provided $100,000 to support TxAIRE's research and student involvement, Vasselli said.

Regina Hoyne, a senior construction management major at UT-Tyler, is one of two students working on the project. Ms. Hoyne started as an intern for Crawford, but Khalifa hired her to work as the Pyramid Homes construction manager on the project.

"This is the best thing that ever happened to me because you learn so much more here than you do in the classroom," said Ms. Hoyne, who is also a student senator and president of UT-Tyler's construction management organization.

Kevin Murray, a junior construction management major, also is working on the project. He said the experience is invaluable.

Murray, who already has a degree in interior design, is overseeing that portion of the project.

"Being an international student, I have very little American building construction knowledge," said Murray, who is of Irish ancestry but grew up in South Africa.

On this project, he chose all the finishes such as the colors for cabinets, walls, brick and shutters and focused on finding local companies whenever possible to supply these products.

Khalifa said few people in East Texas think about building "green" or more energy efficient.

"I think this is going to help with awareness of building these types of homes ." he said of the TxAIRE houses. "These are going to help educate the customers on what works, what doesn't work and the importance of building this type of home."

Vasselli said area real estate professionals, bankers and firefighters already have toured the houses.

He plans to put a type of virtual home tour online so others can see the house even if they cannot physically come to the site.

"These are going to be educational tools as well as research tools," he said.

A formal ribbon-cutting is planned for this fall when the houses are complete.

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