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The Thousand Home Challenge, SHASPA, and Real People Professional content

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By Peggy - May 12th, 2009

Green Construction has made the news frequently of late, heralding the arrival of Green buildings affordable to a broader segment of home buyers. Many of these promising and innovative structures rely on renewable energy sources and green rooftops in addition to powerful insulation and other energy efficiency measures. Once constructed, they are deemed to be green buildings, regardless of occupants.

Green Construction has made the news frequently of late, heralding the arrival of Green buildings affordable to a broader segment of home buyers. Many of these promising and innovative structures rely on renewable energy sources and green rooftops in addition to powerful insulation and other energy efficiency measures. Once constructed, they are deemed to be green buildings, regardless of occupants.

This is an appealing notion, but only theoretically. Even a fuel-efficient car - a simpler beast by far than the complicated inter-related system that is a house - will gain or lose efficiency depending upon the way it is driven. Is a house still green if its occupants like heat to enable them to go sleeveless in the dead of winter and think there can never be enough televisions on at one time? In other words, what constitutes true energy efficiency? What is a meaningful measure?

Two very different approaches have surfaced recently. The first is fresh and barely understood SHASPA, a virtual game-inspired program that allows homeowners to virtually track heat, air quality, and energy use, and turn off running taps virtually, while wandering through a virtual recreation of your home from miles - even countries - away. SHASPA depends upon sensors placed throughout the home, and enables homeowners to view usage rates from within the home, on cell phone, computer monitor or (naturally) Twitter. While we haven't found costs yet, SHASPA shows signs of being a very expensive system, accessible to a privileged few. Tapping into our relentlessly voyeuristic culture, SHASPA enables users to peek into the homes of neighbors, too, enabling a fresh take on keeping up with the Joneses.

The Thousand Home Challenge, by contrast, turns our attention directly to the Joneses and essentially acknowledges that most of us won't be able to keep up. The Challenge, established by Linda Wigington and the Affordable Comfort Institute, sets the ambitious goal of using deep energy retrofits to reduce actual energy use in one thousand homes across North America by 70-90%, a goal that cannot be achieved by building science alone, because it requires a baseline. The  standard  encompasses everything from indoor air quality to electricity use to heating oil and wood burning. A household must reduce its usage from an existing standard which, of course, new buildings lack. I should note that there are two separate strands of the Challenge, one designed for those who have not yet taken on efficiency, who will be able to cut their usage dramatically within the time-frame of the Challenge, and another for those who have been steadily reducing their usage over a period of years, and will face a more relative standard, because energy reductions of 70 percent are simply not plausible.

There are several key elements to this challenge. First, the deep energy reductions are admittedly hard to achieve. The Challenge is not for the faint-hearted or those dappling in energy efficiency, but only for those who are truly motivated to move beyond nominal savings to deep energy retrofits, and extreme efficiency. Second, while extreme, the Challenge is decidedly human.  This distinguishes it from almost every other efficiency program, and has raised a bundle of questions, chief among them, "What do you gain by putting occupants at the center of this Challenge?"

I recently heard Wigington address that question head on, and was quietly thrilled when she answered, essentially, that the Thousand Home Challenge standard is hard to meet. Relying on actual usage data forces homeowners to be creative. "They may hit a barrier in terms of super-insulation - they simply can't do anything more with that. So they have to think, 'what are the other ways we can save? What might not be so complicated or expensive?'"

In other words, the Challenge will motivate lasting change in the way we view our energy use. And where will people turn for insights on ways to save? You guessed it, monitoring devices like TED, that give homeowners real-time feedback and cues for how to tackle their houses.

While every aspect of this Challenge is carefully monitored and measured, and Challenge organizers provide tools for predicting usage, creativity is at the heart of saving, and this Challenge invites even those of us not diving into a deep energy retrofit to see how far we can push our homes. Do we all need triple-paned windows? Maybe not. Maybe we don't even need a SHASPA. Maybe we need power strips that stop passive energy vampires dead. Think about it. The possibilities are endless.


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