5 technologies to address both housing and sustainability concerns

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Taylor Covington

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Renata Balasco

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Solutions bridging housing and sustainability challenges

Nearly half of Americans say the rising cost of living is the biggest threat to their long-term financial half.[1] And there’s valid cause for concern. The value of homes has increased 73% since the 1960s, adjusted for inflation, while rental costs increased 46% from the 1960s to 2000.[2]

On top of higher costs simply to buy or own a home, the United States is also producing and consuming more energy. In 2019, America produced 101 quadrillion British thermal units (or quads) and consumed 100.2 quads of energy.[3] Fossil fuels—including petroleum, natural gas, and coal—made up about 80% of the country’s primary energy production in 2019.

With cost of living and energy usage both increasing, it may seem like we’re in trouble. But thanks to technological advancements, there’s plenty of hope on the horizon. These five technologies can have a positive impact on both affordable housing and sustainable living.

Solar shingles

Homes built using building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) technology offer both structural and solar-gathering purposes.[4]

Rooftops are one of the more common applications of BIPV. The material replaces either roofing material or the entire roof itself. Homes using BIPV install solar “shingles” that blend in seamlessly with a house’s design, rather than bulky solar panels that stick out more noticeably.

BIPV can also be implemented in the sides of buildings, replacing traditional glass windows with crystalline solar panels or semi-transparent thin film.

Why it’s affordable

One of the main reasons solar energy is growing in usage? Prices for solar panels are the lowest they’ve ever been.[5] Installation costs have decreased 70% over the past decade. Solar utility-scale prices range from $16/MWh — $35/MWh, which is on par with other forms of generation.

Additionally, by installing BIPV systems during the initial construction of homes rather than adding them in later, builders can reduce costs and design issues for separate systems.

Why it’s sustainable

While fossil fuels are finite, solar power is inexhaustible.[6] It serves as a non-polluting source of energy, and when producing electricity, it doesn’t emit any greenhouse gases. Even on cold, cloudy days, solar panels can absorb enough sunlight to provide energy.

Cement-coated expanded polystyrene panels

Builders can make more affordable housing options by using technological innovations in modern building materials. For example, cement-coated expanded polystyrene (EPS) panels can replace stones to construct a house.[7] This ready-made EPS foam is fitted between a wire mesh and sealed with concrete on both sides.

Why it’s affordable

These types of projects cost less with the materials themselves, but they also lead to quicker construction times. Houses built with EPS panels have cut construction time in half and have reported about 25% lower overall costs.

Why it’s sustainable

Even though EPS is a fairly lightweight material, a modular home is strong enough to withstand natural threats like rain and wind. EPS panels also provide thermal insulation, giving the home a comfortable temperature regardless of what it feels like outside. This insulation reduces the need to burn fossil fuels.

Geothermal heat pumps

Traditional HVAC systems exchange air inside the house with air outside of it. In the summer, a home pumps out hot air while cooling the air indoors. In the winter, the home pulls heat from outside into the home.

Geothermal heat pumps instead make that exchange underground, where temperatures are more consistent. Below the “frost line” — where the ground absorbs the above ground temperature — there’s a well-maintained and regular temperature of about 54 degrees Fahrenheit.[8] A geothermal heat pump collects that heat and provides energy to the home.

Why it’s affordable

Geothermal heat pumps (GHPs) reduce both maintenance and utility costs. On average, homes save $500 per year on maintenance, while electricity bills are reduced by 25 to 50%.[9] In apartment and modular housing complexes, those savings add up and can be passed on through lower rent costs.

GHPs also last for a long time — up to 50 years — which means they need to be replaced less infrequently. And because they have no outdoor compressors, GHPs aren’t susceptible to vandalism or other forms of destruction.

Why it’s sustainable

If you’ve ever cranked up the AC in the summer or turned up the heat in the window, you’ve likely heard your HVAC system putting in work to make those changes happen. Because the differences in indoor and outdoor temperatures are so vast, traditional systems work harder, and thus expend more energy. Since GHPs use more regulated temperatures, the system won’t have to work as hard to keep things comfortable.

Per the EPA, geothermal heat pumps reduce energy consumption and emissions by up to 44% compared to air-source heat pumps and up to 72% compared to electric resistance heating with standard air-conditioning equipment.

Greywater systems

Think of greywater as a complement to recycling, but instead of repurposing items, you’re reusing your water supply. Greywater systems take water that’s already been used from areas like your shower, sink, and washer and divert it to a “surge tank.”[10] That surge tank holds a large amount of water and slows down the flow so any solids fall to the bottom of the tank.

The cleaner water — the greywater — moves on throughout the process. It can then be used for another purpose, such as watering plants or cleaning a patio.

Why it’s affordable

The initial installation costs of greywater systems can be higher than a traditional system. However, the ongoing cost savings on water bills are often significant, especially if homeowners set up systems themselves. For example, a DIY branched drain can pay for itself after just seven years and a DIY laundry to landscape setup will reach a breakeven point after only two years.

Why it’s sustainable

Unlike blackwater (a.k.a. sewage), greywater is still usable even if it’s non-potable and contains dirt or grease from its first use. Instead of being flushed away, the greywater can be reused, saving the precious resource of water. Like geothermal heat pumps, building drain lines beneath the frost line can help avoid freezing pipes in the winter.

Homesharing and rental apps

The final technology addressing both affordable housing and sustainability isn’t something you’d necessarily put on a home, but is making an impact nonetheless.[12]

Companies like PadSplit and Nesterly allow homeowners to rent spare bedrooms or split their homes into multiple units. As cities continue to adjust regulations and tax policies around rental properties, this can be another way for homeowners to simultaneously earn money while offering more affordable housing for others.

Other companies like OneApp, Jetty and Rentlogic offer renters upfront information, such as apartments that will accept their credit and criminal background status, surety bonds in lieu of security deposits, and tools to evaluate buildings.

Why they’re affordable

There are at least 50 million spare bedrooms in the U.S., and companies that allow homeowners to rent out their bedrooms are creating a lower-cost and often higher-quality alternative.

Meanwhile, rental apps can help renters save money on application fees and other hidden upfront costs that they may otherwise not be able to afford.

Why they’re sustainable

Renters with cars can carpool with homeowners, cutting down on total emissions coming from vehicles. With rental apps, renters can get the information they need before visiting a potential home, using less gas since they don’t have to drive from apartment to apartment and can narrow down their options remotely.

  1. Nearly half of Americans say rising cost of living is the greatest threat to financial security. CNBC

  2. Millennials face soaring rents. Business Insider

  3. U.S. energy facts explained. U.S. Energy Information Administration

  4. Building-Integrated Photovoltaics. SEIA

  5. Solar Industry Research Data. SEIA

  6. Renewable Energy Products. Energy Matters

  7. The role of tech in affordable housing. Medium

  8. Energy Explorer: Geothermal Energy. Consumer Energy Alliance

  9. Geothermal Heat Pumps. U.S. Department of Energy

  10. Simple Greywater Systems For Your Home. The Tiny Life

  11. The technology that is making housing more affordable. Smart Cities World