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Innovative Technology for Homebuilding

Advancing, innovative technology is recreating the way builders work

By Don Neff

Exciting new European building technology solutions are being utilized in the United States and we expect to see wider scale adoption in the future.

Late last year, I attended the Advanced Building Skin (ABS) Conference in Bern, Switzerland, speaking on the topic of quality assurance in homebuilding programs. I learned about several new building materials and applications: dynamic glass and flexible building skins which provide energy efficiency for interior spaces, transparent solar panels, and aerogel insulation. Other interesting and potentially innovative technologies were presented, yet too numerous to describe in this short article.

Dynamic glass is the building skin at the 90-story Wanda Vista mixed-use high-rise tower on the Chicago River. In New York, Corning Glass has a marketing lab near the gentrifying Meat Packing District where dynamic glass windows are demonstrated for inquisitive homebuilders and developers. Each window has its own IP address, allowing a range of shading options driven by a mobile phone software app. It was amazing to see windows becoming darker and lighter without use of mechanical roller shades that block out the natural views. These windows present direct applications for home building with energy saving benefits and improved comfort for occupants.

Electrochromic glass automatically tints when heat from direct sunlight warms the glass. This type of glass adapts to sunlight and the environment, helping to maximize natural light and reduce the heat load. Such innovative products like these combine multiple benefits of durability, translucent functionality, and energy efficiency in one creative design.

Transparent solar panels have been one topic of research in MIT’s Center for Excitonics, an energy frontier research center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Researchers there have backgrounds in electrical engineering and computer science. The solar cells are so thin they become translucent and even transparent. This would allow the cells to be applied on top of a surface and be virtually invisible. Estimates are that using coated windows in a skyscraper could provide more than 25% of the building’s energy needs. Another research group at MIT’s Organic and Nanostructured Electronics Laboratory took a different approach, separating wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum, some of which are visible light and other wavelengths not visible but equally important — energy producing.

Richard Lunt, formerly an MIT postdoc, and now professor at Michigan State University, proposed making a solar cell that would absorb all the energy from the sun except the part that allows us to see. Other solutions include a holistic approach in designing the transparent devices with multiple active layers of coatings and transparent electrodes, requiring a combination of molecular engineering and optical design. Given homebuyer preferences for expansive views from large panoramic windows, what better solution than employing smart glass for double duty performance: to capture panoramic views and generate electricity during daylight hours to charge up your whole house battery and then draw on

its reserve throughout the evening. European builders, faced with high energy costs, use similar technology to reduce the total installed KW panel arrays on rooftops.

These studies hope to develop transparent solar cells that are efficient and can be placed on a variety of surfaces and objects, creating energy-harvesting systems without altering the design. At the ABS Conference, product manufacturers displayed a set of equally innovative and decorative solar panels which one could see through, yet still generate electricity. The solar voltaics were integrated into an arranged pattern of colorful maple leaves in an otherwise transparent wall panel, creating electricity that generates a privacy screen for patios and gardens. Aerogel insulation has R-values per inch which are 1.56X greater than Polyiso Foam, 2.29X greater than Styrene Foam, 2.86X greater than Mineral Wool, 3.03X greater than Fiberglass Batts, and 3.22X greater than Blown Cellulose. According to NASA, aerogels were first invented in the 1930’s. They are created by combining a polymer and a solvent to form a gel, then replacing the liquid with gas. They are very light, porous, and extremely low density. A variety of manufactured aerogel products are available, including Aluminum Silicate High Temperature Insulation Ceramic Fiber Blanket, Aspen Aerogel Insulation, and Spaceloft Aerogel Blankets. Spaceloft, for example, is a flexible aerogel composite, hydrophobic blanket designed for insulating buildings and apparel.

This gives new meaning to Joe Lstiburek’s famous quote, “If you are cold, you put on a sweater, you don’t eat it,” comparing the effectiveness of exterior home building insulation to interior fiberglass batt insulation stuffed into your stud bay cavities. Three inches of aerogel insulation provides an equivalent R-Value of R30.9. It also reportedly makes such a good insulator, that a blowtorch on one side cannot light a match on the opposite side. Aerogel can thus provide the dual solution of enhanced building insulation value and fire protection. This could be a homebuilder’s dream come true.

The construction world is changing and we all need to hustle to keep up. What’s in your toolbox?

Don Neff is the president and CEO of LJP Construction Services. LJP Construction Services has assisted 2,000 commercial and residential builder and insurance clients worldwide covering more than 100,000 homes throughout the U.S.