US Department of Energy Accelerates National Affordable Housing Upgrades

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The need to provide a whole lot more affordable housing solutions for disadvantaged communities is imperative but daunting. That’s why the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Building Technologies Office (BTO) launched a funding effort to reinvent the “ABCs” of building construction and renovation.

Nationally, buildings use 40% of the nation’s energy and 75% of its electricity, making this sector ideal for reducing up to 35% of US carbon emissions. A total of $32 million will ultimately fund more than 30 next generation building retrofit projects to improve affordable housing and commercial building technologies.

According to the DOE, techniques such as prefabricating walls and drop-in replacements for heating, cooling, and water-heating systems can revolutionize construction and renovation efficiency. They can also provide the means to decarbonize the 130 million buildings in the US at the rate needed to address both the climate crisis and to meet President Biden’s goal of a net zero carbon economy by 2050.

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The selected teams will also advance the DOE-funded Advanced Building Construction Collaborative, which connects companies working in prefabricated, modular, and other industrialized construction techniques with building owners, developers, financiers, utilities, and researchers to modernize the construction industry and buildings sector.

DOE Award Winners

The 7 ABC awardees are researching new renovation techniques to upgrade the energy and environmental performance of buildings. The goal is to reduce disruption to tenants as the work is conducted through faster, more affordable, and effective materials and construction methods.

The selectees are:

  • Fraunhofer USA Center for Manufacturing Innovation, Massachusetts — Award amount: $4.9 million: Their project will test prefabricated, super-insulated wall retrofit panel blocks with a suite of high-performance building technologies across 4 locations in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Pennsylvania.
  • Home Innovation Research Labs, Inc., Maryland — Award amount: $4.5 million: They will test an innovative wall system with vacuum insulated panels in three residential, multi-family public housing buildings in Albany, New York.
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Colorado —  Award amount: $4.4 million: NREL will use software tools to properly size and install retrofit packages in two residential low-income, multi-family buildings in Arvada, Colorado.
  • Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee —  Award amount: $5 million: Oak Ridge will demonstrate 3D-printed modular overclad panels with heat pump systems in 8 to 12 single-family attached public housing homes and one commercial building in Knoxville, Tennessee.
  • Rocky Mountain Institute, Colorado — Award amount: $4.4 million: The Rocky Mountain Institute will demonstrate an integrated retrofit package of envelope panels, a heat pump pod, and innovative financing in a mid-rise, 120-unit low-income multifamily building in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Syracuse University, New York —  Award amount: $5 million: Syracuse will pair overclad panels with real-time performance monitoring capabilities and an “HVAC pod” in single-family attached dormitories in Syracuse, New York.
  • The University of Central Florida Board of Trustees, Florida — Award amount: $3.6 million: UCF will demonstrate a solar photovoltaic-integrated multi-functional heat pump system for space and water heating in 4 single-family homes and 8 manufactured homes across numerous locations in 6 states.

Case Study: NREL Retrofit Affordable Housing Project

A National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) proposal is among 7 selected by the DOE to help fast track affordable housing solutions for disadvantaged communities. A senior NREL researcher will be leading a $4.8 million Building Technologies and Science Center project to retrofit packages in two low income multifamily residential buildings. The demonstration project in Arvada, Colorado will be led by Chioke Harris.

The NREL concept for the envelope portion of the building upgrade involves prefabricated panels that fit over an existing building through an airtight racking system. The panels, customized at the factory to fit a specific building, can be shipped directly from the factory to the building site for installation.

“The point is less labor, less time, less error. Anything we can do to optimize or streamline the process,” Harris said.

To make the custom retrofit possible, NREL team collaborators are applying mixed reality and machine learning software to capture precise building measurements with a 3D laser scan, replacing traditional building survey methods. “Mixed reality is a space between augmented reality and virtual reality,” Harris said. “A headset allows the on-site construction team and remotely located retrofit experts to have direct visual interaction to solve problems in real time.”

The NREL project ultimately requires fewer construction supervisors on-site and less professional experience, and it allows for immediate feedback through mixed-reality interaction platforms.

Advanced Building Construction Initiative

The DOE Advanced Building Construction (ABC) Initiative uses a two-pronged strategy: investing in new technologies and engaging private and public sector stakeholders across the buildings industry.

ABC Technology Investments: The ABC Initiative invests in new technologies that enable high building performance, can be deployed quickly with minimal onsite construction time, and are affordable and appealing to building owners, investors, and occupants. This investment primarily takes the form of funding opportunity announcement (FOA) awards.

ABC Stakeholder Engagement: The ABC Initiative also partners with key building sector stakeholders to tackle related challenges, including workforce training, business models, demand growth, and service delivery. This engagement occurs primarily through the ABC Collaborative. The Collaborative brings together builders, manufacturers, owners, and other key stakeholders to address barriers to transferring ABC technologies to the market.

These awardees use many innovations, including the following approaches:

  • Building with newly developed materials, such as recycled materials or existing materials not traditionally used in construction, can decrease the overall energy used to construct buildings while simultaneously decreasing operational energy usage. New materials also pave the way for buildings to host and act as distributed energy resources, incorporating technologies such as solar panel facades, thermal storage, and sealants with self-healing capabilities.
  • Additive and subtractive manufacturing tools, such as 3D printers and computer numerical control (CNC) machines, have improved dramatically over the past few decades, opening doors for building structures and components that were previously impossible or incredibly time-consuming to create. With recent breakthroughs, these fabrication techniques may hold promise in accelerating production time and quality of building components. Although the best uses of 3D printing for buildings are not yet entirely clear, 3D printing may even be used to construct entire buildings and neighborhood blocks in the not-too-distant future.
  • Factory and off-site construction methods have the potential to produce higher quality and faster construction timelines, improve productivity, increase the integration of various energy-efficiency technologies, and provide workers with controlled working conditions at lower costs. The increased precision and scalability that controlled factory settings provide can help ensure greater energy performance with the integration of tighter envelopes, better installed windows, smarter controls, and improved HVAC system designs.
  • Advancements in robotics capabilities and controls allow for human workers to reach places or perform activities that were previously impossible. For example, robots can safely enter small spaces and cavities, such as ductwork, to perform air-sealing or other efficiency activities. Robots can be used to improve productivity and ensure consistency when installing energy-efficiency measures.
  • Complex software and faster computing power, combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning, allow for the rapid intake and processing of information. For energy-efficient construction, machines can intake visual images, energy analysis and modeling, and other inputs to directly translate data into the fabrication of building components including walls, roofs, or interior design features. This process, also known colloquially as “art-to-part,” can help bridge the gap between a traditional building and a high-performance building with smarter, energy-efficient components.

Final Thoughts about Affordable Housing

The DOE’s ABC Initiative integrates energy efficiency solutions into highly productive US construction practices for new buildings and retrofits. Watch this video to learn more about how the ABC Initiative is helping deliver affordable, appealing, high-performance, low-carbon new buildings and retrofits at scale.


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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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