Michael McDonough | Architect

e-House: Space Invaders

Architectural Record, March 2002

By Jacqueline Emigh


Using technology at home for saving energy, not changing channels

Michael McDonough, AIA, advocates using smart-building technology at home—but one of a different stripe. “Most smart-home systems emphasize entertainment and convenience,” he explains. “And consumers will spend lots of money on entertainment systems and such, often to their later disappointment, because the systems are too complicated to use or maintain or upgrade. Why bother? If you invest in technology to gain efficiency rather than convenience, it’ll earn its keep in the long run.”

The architect is building e-House 2000 (shown below), a residential project he designed in rural Stone Ridge, New York, to demonstrate how wireless computing and monitoring technology enable energy-saving features and systems like radiant cooling and passive solar heating. Sensors will be used to track “the vanilla stuff” like temperature, says McDonough, along with humidity, heat gain, and even ground freezing near critical underground systems that could be damaged by frost.

The sensors will monitor the parts of the house most prone to failure or poor performance, like drains and flashings. “Some of the problems of past green buildings are well known,” McDonough says. “With radiant cooling, you get condensation on the ceiling once you reach the dew point, so you have to make sure the indoor air is dry enough, or else you have to put in collection panels. And you can get cracking and thermal bridging around windows due to differences in thermal expansion and contraction, and, because the R-factor of glass is so much lower than the surrounding walls.” Information from the sensors flows to supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software that will alert him to potential problems, and either automatically adjust systems to work optimally in concert or let him manually turn on dehumidifiers, lower window shades, and make other adjustments from a home computer.

Cantilevered sections of the house with north-facing windows are built of steel rather than wood. McDonough says he will monitor the insulation around the steel to add heat as needed, to avoid the problems that often hamper steel’s performance in cold climates. “I wanted to use steel to create a light, clean, modern look,” he says. “Green building doesn’t have to be all brown rice.”

“There’s no magic bullet here,” McDonough says of the extensive monitoring and management system in the house, which he’ll live and work in once it’s complete later this year. “There’s always the potential for failure or poor performance of building systems. But this stuff helps.” DS/JE