After oil ushered in an era of excess, many people in the Middle East stopped building sensible homes adapted to harsh weather conditions. But a group of students from Oman are bridging the distance with a sustainable design with which even the most traditional Arab can identify. Here’s the thing: many homes in the Gulf region in particular have separate quarters for men and women (who aren’t a part of the family), making them rather large. Whether or not westerners agree with this, it’s a fact of life here – so the Higher College of Technology found a brilliant way to satisfy this requirement while slashing the home’s overall footprint by roughly two thirds. Then they added a slew of other sustainable features and a crown of solar panels, resulting in a super villa that is 100 percent powered by the sun and generates three times the energy it needs to run.
Mona Al Farsi, the HCT GreenNest Eco House project manager, told Inhabitat the students wanted to demonstrate that less is more. To that end, they rejected a few of the attributes common in Arab homes, which prioritize privacy above all. Instead of solid walls and curtains that suffocate the interior, they opted for shaded openings wrapped with vegetation and oriented towards the north to optimize natural light and ventilation. Al Farsi said this gives residents a moving framed image when they look outside as the seasons unfold and a greater sense of well-being as their connection to nature is thereby deepened.
The western wall is covered in greenery, creating a colorful habitat for pollinators and other creatures. Elsewhere on the site, which is located on the HCT campus in Muscat as an educational showcase that is now being incorporated into the architecture department’s curriculum, the students installed an insect hotel. They’re also growing food on site, including the citrus for which Oman is notorious. All around the house are shaded recreational areas that extend the living space, a particularly important feature for a people accustomed to entertaining many visitors.
About 60 percent of the home’s water is recycled for irrigation, a sensible conservation strategy further bolstered by low-flow fixtures. These are especially progressive features for homes in such a water scarce region. The rooftop PV array comprises 76 solar panels that feed energy to the city grid. Al Farsi says 50 panels would easily generate enough energy for a family of six.
GreenNest was the winning entry in Oman’s inaugural Eco House Design Competition. The students are required to monitor the home’s performance, in part to help the government transition to more sustainable housing that is also financially feasible. They are measuring temperature, humidity, energy generation and experimenting with different plants and crops as part of this year-long followup study. It’s not easy to find a sustainable home design modern Arabs can embrace (they’re not going to squeeze their families into tiny homes anytime soon). Now, after many years of searching, I think I’ve finally found a winning model.
The buzzword in home construction today is “sustainability” – building homes that integrate with the landscape, are energy efficient and use renewable materials. And an eco-friendly home doesn’t mean sacrificing luxury or design. Whether you’re buying new construction or renovating an older home for greater efficiency, there are a few terms and concepts you should know about.
Insulation: Walls, ceilings, basements and attics are places where your home can lose energy. Options for a well-insulated house can range from specially insulated exterior walls to blown-in cellulose, from energy-reflecting cool roof systems to roof and interior attic foam insulation. Many states offer rebates or low- or no-interest loans to help you save energy and reduce heating and cooling bills. Start by calling your local utility company and asking about any programs they offer. A well-insulated house can take advantage of environmental factors to keep the temperature constant and comfortable.
Windows: Since windows are mostly glass, substantial savings in heating and cooling can come from improved glass performance. Highly efficient replacement windows can save you hundreds of dollars, but they can be very expensive. If you live in a hot climate and are interested in keeping the heat out of your home, a less expensive option may be to apply low-E film to your windows. Low-E film enhances the window’s ability to reflect heat, rather than absorb it. You can apply these films yourself or hire a contractor to handle a more complicated application. Finally, window shades are a low-tech and inexpensive way to control temperature in the home.
Solar: Passive solar depends on how your house is sited and landscaped, and how architectural features work to collect, store and distribute heat in the winter and reject heat in the summer. When passive solar features are included in the building design, they add little or no cost and can result in thousands of dollars in energy savings over the life of your home. Solar heating usually refers to technologies that collect and store energy from the sun, often using photovoltaic (battery) systems. Solar power systems can be used to generate electricity or heat water. Again, there may be local or state programs that offer incentives to buy or rent home solar energy systems.
Low (or Zero) VOC: VOC stands for volatile organic compounds, which are chemicals found in paints and flooring that can vaporize and emit gases for long periods of time. Eco-friendly paints that are low VOC emit smaller amounts of these gases and are usually odor free. Low VOC carpeting is made by many manufacturers and is attractive and comfortable.
Low-Flow Water Fixtures: Low-flow faucets, shower heads and toilets use less water per minute than traditional fixtures and conserve water by adding air into the system to produce a strong flow while using less water. Installing these devices requires an investment, but you will likely earn back your expenditure in the first year. Again, many city governments or utilities offer incentives to install these energy-saving fixtures in your older home.
Focusing on sustainable design and materials means you can make your house more comfortable and less expensive to maintain while minimizing your impact on natural resources and respecting the environment.
Big things are happening in the world of energy efficient windows. Where once window manufacturers simply added another layer of glass and called it a day, new research and materials make it possible to create windows that can cut annual energy bills by up to 20%. Apply that number to all the buildings in the world and you have removed millions of tons of carbon dioxide from the air, not burned millions of barrels of oil for heat and electricity and saved families and business billions of dollars. No wonder the market for energy efficient windows is expected to grow by 19% a year to more than $ 5 billion dollar by 2020 according to Industry ARC, a global research firm.
Windows are wonderful. They let sunlight in and see the world outside. But they are weakest link when it comes to insulating our homes and commercial buildings. On average, a window has less than 10% of the insulating power of the walls that surrounds it. Not only does it let precious heat out in the winter, making our furnaces work harder, it also lets unwanted heat in during the summer, putting an extra load on air conditioning equipment.
Smart windows change the equation. They have glass panes that are coated with a thin layer of metal oxide. You can’t see it, but it’s there. What’s so great about this coating? A small electrical voltage applied to it lets it darken the window, which reduces the amount of heat transference through the glass. It also controls the amount of light entering a room without the use of blinds, draperies or shades.
Often called electronic switchable glass, it is the focus of attention at such global glass companies as Saint-Gobain, DuPont, Asahi Glass, Hitachi Chemical, Corning Inc., Guardian Industries, PPG Industries Inc., Smartglass International, Gentex Corporation, Vision Systems and others. Coating companies such as Wenzhou Yongfeng, Corning, DuPont, Richtech, and Sekisui are involved in the research and development of advanced coating technology..
Listen to what Rao Mulphuri, CEO of View, a start-up window company in California has to say. “Every View window has an IP address and controllable through the Internet. Everything is at your fingertips and then it can tie a number of other things together. The windows can now talk to the lighting and HVAC system, and on a more global level it could connect to the future smart city and smart grid,” he told Forbes.
That means, every window in an entire building may soon be able to be individually controlled every hour of the day. For instance, the glass on one side might be left clear to let in morning sun, while the glass on the other side is made darker to avoid heat gain from the afternoon sun. Individual windows could also be controlled to compensate for shading from a nearby tree, or even from a passing cloud!
Mulphuri also claims the windows will be energy efficient, promising that businesses and homes that will adopt the technology will be able to save 20 per cent of their electricity bill in just one year. View has just received $75 million in funding from the New Zealand national pension fund.
Switchable glass has many interior uses as well. It can be used to make clear walls that can be darkened for privacy when needed. The degree of darkening depends solely on the amount of voltage applied to the coating. The technology can also be used in automobiles to help bring light into the interior but control solar heat gain in warm climates.
The possibilities are endless. Soon, the old expression, “It’s as clear as glass,” may no longer apply.