Micro and modular housing energy

Micro and modular housing – a zero net energy game?

New micro-dwelling housing offers the design opportunity to achieve zero net energy and other utility cost reductions.
Published: Wed 21 Feb 2018

It seems to be a global trend that housing is becoming scarcer and more expensive and more unaffordable for the new, particularly younger, buyers.

The upshot is the emergence of growing numbers of micro-dwelling units, or what also have been called ‘pocket homes’. Generally aimed primarily at students, young professionals and elderly singles scaling down, they tend to be well fitted for easy living.

As such they also are an ideal environment for sustainability and with the opportunity for zero (or near zero) net energy.

Zero-net energy buildings

The zero-net energy building concept, in which in essence the amount of energy used within the building is equivalent to that generated from renewable resources, has gained impetus with the need to meet carbon emission reduction targets.

With the opportunity to embed energy efficiency measures and potentially onsite generation and storage at the outset, new builds are ideal for growing the zero-net energy building stock.

For example, in Europe under the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive of 2010, all new buildings are required to be nearly zero energy by the end of 2020. All new public buildings must be nearly zero energy by 2018.

With micro-housing usually being new build, and essentially modular in nature, near zero net energy should be both attainable and scalable.

“It’s about living smaller but better and minimising utility consumption,” says Louise Harpman, Associate Professor at the Gallatin School of Individualised Study at New York University (NYU) and Project Director of the Zeromicro Applied Research Consortium.

Arguing that size doesn’t necessarily equate with quality or comfort, she comments that while the average size of individual dwellings in the US has steadily increased, reaching about 250m2 in 2015, that of micro-dwellings has declined and is in the range 28m2 to 37m2.

Louise Harpman discusses Micro and modular housing.

Scaling up micro-dwellings

Harpman, who has been working on zero-net energy building design for over a decade, says the focus now is on ‘microtowers’, i.e. buildings composed of micro-dwellings.

“It allows us to understand the zero-net energy building protocol but also to do metering and monitoring at a granular level.”

She says that key to design is to understand the next generation of home owners and how they interact with their homes. The next concept under development is the ‘zero building’- micro-dwellings also incorporating water, waste and recycling.

“What’s the incentive to save if there is no metering? We’ve found students want to be incentivised and gamify. The zeromicro supersmart meter is an all in one metering, monitoring and management system.”

This concept is now being put in place at NYU with a testbed of up to 30 micro-dwelling units as student residences.

“We think this offers an ideal testbed,” says Harpman. Like other universities, NYU requires its students to live on campus for their first two years.

“Even a 10% saving could save $1,700 in room and board costs,” she notes.