Three mornings a week, Bill Healy or Hunter Fanney lead tours for their government colleagues of the newest and most curious project on the campus of the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a place where federal researchers tinker with wild ideas like refrigerants that could combat global warming and sensors that could measure human brain activity. This latest $2.5 million experiment went up slowly over the course of 18 months on a grassy lawn just inside the campus’ main entrance and across the street from its childcare center. So lots of people have been waiting to get a peek inside.
Set anywhere else – in fact, even just outside of NIST’s security gates in suburban Washington, D.C. – this laboratory would look entirely unremarkable. It is, by all appearances, a typical suburban American home. It has three upstairs bedrooms, 2,700 square feet of living space, another 1,500 square feet of unfinished basement, a detached two-car garage and the kind of yawning driveway you could spend an entire weekend shoveling in wintertime.
"Now," says Healy, starting a tour this week inside the two-car garage for a dozen curious colleagues, "this isn’t a small home."
Of course, he’s stating the obvious. But the size of this house is one of the most novel things about it. NIST believes that this home – with 10 kilowatts of photovoltaic panels on the roof, and another four solar thermal panels over the front porch – will generate as much energy as a four-person family can consume in a year. This is, in other words, a “net-zero” house. But most attempts at building such places have taken the form of futuristic or minimalist creations, of tiny pod homes or avant-garde construction.
"We wanted to show that it could be done in a normal house," says Healy, a group leader in NIST’s Energy and Environment Division. "We could have done small little pods, but we didn’t think that would really have the impact of showing what could be done in a real, American house."
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