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Next Gen Dens: Home Energy, Building, and Product Innovations that are Proven Industry Changers

Mar 24, 2017 02:00PM ● By James Houck
Accelerated technology has advanced a myriad of industries, professions, and our very own lifestyles. Innovative tech in the home industry has propelled it to next-level design, construction, and efficiency standards. Here are a few of the 21st century innovations that not only excite us, but also local home service providers that utilize them.

Return on Energy Investment

When Federal and state grants, tax credits, and other incentives related to renewable energy became widely legislated in the 2000s, the attraction of geothermal and solar energy systems heightened for homeowners and businesses. The math was simple: up-front installation and system costs extrapolated into long-term energy and financial savings…even returns on investment.

Today’s renewable energy technology—be it geothermal, solar, or other—isn’t as complex as perceived and continues to improve. For example, Tesla is currently engineering “solar shingles” that could: cost less to manufacture and install than a traditional roof; look almost indistinguishable from high-end roofing materials; and convert sunlight into electricity for your home and vehicles. At a company press conference this past November, CEO Elon Musk stated, “So the basic proposition will be: Would you like a roof that looks better than a normal roof, lasts twice as long, costs less, and, by the way, generates electricity? Why would you get anything else?” 
Tesla has developed solar shingles that look like traditional materials, but are more durable, generate electricity, and cost less.


Indeed, there’s an allure to technology that generates financial savings. Or possibly in the long-term, a return on investment. Proponents of geothermal systems have long touted the ROI potential. And case-after-case example makes it easy to see why.

If you’re faced with completely replacing your HVAC system, consider the following:

In Maryland today, homeowners can apply for a $3,000 Clean Energy Grant toward the installation of a geothermal system. And some companies—BGE for example—offer system installation rebates. Suppose an average cost of $30,000 for a geothermal installation at a 2,000-square foot home, minus several incentives, is reduced to $25,000.

Comparatively, a conventional system may cost an average of $15,000 to install with no grants, rebates, etc. Faced with making a choice between the two systems, it would cost you $10,000 more to install geothermal. Assume the lifespan of both systems is 20 years.

But once installed, the new geothermal system is estimated to annually cost $1,500 less than a conventional system to heat and cool your home. Add $500 in annual savings (according to Department of Energy estimates) because you’ll no longer need to pay to heat hot water—the ground-loop and heat exchanger provide all the hot water you’ll need.

Crunch the numbers and you’ll recoup the extra cost (that $10,000) of installing a geothermal system in five years. You’ll recoup the total cost of the system in 12.5 years. Afterward, the annual savings could be considered a return on your investment (think $2,000 annually for the remaining lifespan of the system).

Although Federal tax credits toward geothermal installations expired last year, they have been extended through 2020 for solar installations. What’s right for you and your home? Thankfully, there are many attractive options today.

Building Information Modeling

For architects, engineers, and developers of buildings, dwellings et al there is, perhaps, not a more significant technological paradigm shift within the industry than that of transitioning from the use of two-dimensional drafting and design software to three-dimensional building information modeling (BIM). The advantages of 3D design versus 2D, which was long the industry standard, is astonishing.

Renowned architect Catherine Purple Cherry recalls her firm’s software transition in 2008 and why, “I wanted to improve quality control. In a 2D drawing program, there is great risk for human error within the drawings. When making a change to a floor plan, it does not make the same change to the elevation. This requires an architect to implement all changes across the drawing set. Revit [Cherry’s software of choice] creates a 3D model in which a parametric change can be made and implemented throughout the entire model. For example, if a door size is changed, it changes in the model and thus also impacts multiple aspects of the set: the plan, elevation, section, etc.”

“BMI software enables our clients to more readily visualize the complete design of their project in a ‘virtual computer model’ before any actual construction begins,” Cherry explains. “[It] enables our design staff and our consultants to more thoroughly understand and develop the relationships of building components in the virtual model much earlier in the building design cycle. [It] allows us to see the ramifications of design changes—be they simple or significant—throughout the entire building. [It] enables the contractors, who build our projects, to more clearly understand the design intent of our drawings, since they no longer have to decipher spatial relationships from basic 2D plans, elevations, and sections alone.

“It is quickly becoming an AE [architect and engineering] industry ‘best practices’ approach.”

Revit is parametric building information modeling software. That’s tech talk for a next-level architecture program that allows for responsive three- dimensional engineering.


Revit is parametric building information modeling software. That’s tech talk for a next-level architecture program that allows for responsive three- dimensional engineering.


Materials Visible & Not

It’s no mystery that building materials have undergone significant, if not revolutionary, change in terms of both composition and methods used. And our homes are often the proving grounds for construction innovation.

For face-value proof, simply take a look at decking materials. To combat the shorter lifespan of commonly-used, pressure-treated lumber, the construction industry developed composite decking in the early-1990s—a combination of wood fiber and plastic.

The early formulas, however, were still prone to cracking, warping, and aging issues. By the 2000s though, companies such as Trex began rolling out products that better addressed these construction concerns and featured aesthetics that consumers sought (texture and color resembling wood grain). The trick, they discovered, was removing the fiber filler and developing plastic-only material. Known as PVC decking, the material has improved in the years since, as more companies entered the market and competition produced innovation.

The next evolution in decking, which hit the market just several years ago, was and continues to be capstock—a combination of composite boards wrapped with plastic materials in various ways. Aesthetic and compositional modifications to capstock continue to evolve, making the product even more pleasing to the eye and long lasting.

Extending our living space to the outdoors (with decks as discussed) and defining their boundaries with fencing has, of course, seen unique innovation as well. While there’s no shortage of fence styles and materials to consider, some homeowners are opting for invisible. Marketed to pet owners, “invisible” fencing (first conceived in 1973) offers a perimeter boundary without the structural/visual distraction of a traditional fence by burying a digital radio signal-emitting cable underground, along the property line (or wherever a homeowner chooses). It can avoid many structural impediments (think sheds, trees, etc.) by simple customization of the cable’s buried path. The pet wears a computer collar receiver that “statically corrects” him or her if the boundary is nearly crossed. Gone are the days of doggy lead lines, fencing/property line disputes with neighbors, and homeowner association quarrels.