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In 2014, Whirlpool Corporation partnered with Purdue University in a three-year retrofit project aimed to achieve net-zero energy by transforming a home built in the 1920s into a living, breathing sustainable showcase. The ReNEWW House — Retrofitted Net-Zero Energy, Water and Waste project — is an example of what collaboration, public and private partnering, and an open learning space can do for sustainability. The project has drawn a lot of attention and continues to offer continuous learning for engineers, contractors, homeowners and green energy admirers alike.
The ReNEWW House, located near Purdue’s campus in West Lafayette, Indiana, was chosen partly because it serves as a microcosm of one of the most pervasive problems in the U.S.’s housing sector.
“We wanted a retrofit to address the 100 to one problem. There’s 100 million existing homes versus one million new homes,” says Ronald Voglewede, Global Sustainability director, Whirlpool Corporation. “We asked: how can people get efficiency into homes today and not wait 100 years to let the existing housing stock turn over?”
The answer is in collaboration
The ReNEWW project researchers’ short answer to this needed solution is to allow innovation, complexity and collaboration into the equation.
The ReNEWW House started out as a “living lab” where talented individuals involved in the Whirlpool Engineering Rotational Leadership Development (WERLD) program could pursue their master’s degrees in engineering at Purdue.
Jason Schneemann, a project engineer who recently joined Whirlpool’s Global Sustainability team as the coordinator for the innovation efforts at the ReNEWW House, was also one of the first students to live and research in the house.
“What led me to the project during the house’s inception was its goal to achieve net-zero energy and to make an impact in sustainability in the consumer’s home,” Schneemann says.
WERLD students who work in the house perform research in a variety of multi-disciplinary projects, receive formal mentoring and training, and work with some of world’s most innovative systems and technologies. Some students focus on the renewable energy side, while others are interested in learning about water reuse. Professors actively help and work alongside engineers on their programs.
The real-world student and professor partnering has shed light on how academia and trades can work together to make a lasting impact.
“The ReNEWW House is an important collaboration through academia. The program provides engineers with access to subject experts who offer real-world experience, and helps bridge the gap between theoretical and commercialization,” Schneemann explains.
But this is not the only layer of collaboration the ReNEWW House has to offer.
“We have almost 20 different collaborations of people, companies and academic institutions working in the house. We have found — and our partners have found —a lot of value in the house,” Voglewede says. “The biggest questions we’re asking have to do with the intersection between energy and water. We have at least five years on this project, and we are going to continue to expand a lot more partnerships.”
Three-phase design; integrative systems
The ReNEWW House’s development has been divided into three phases, each implemented over the course of a year.
The first phase, completed at the end of 2015, focused on energy capture and retrofitting the home to include systems and materials like geothermal systems, solar paneling, low GWP insulation and triple-panel windows. Some of the companies involved in these processes included Honeywell, which provided some low-global-warming foam insulation; and Solar Zentrum North America, which provided solar panels. Green Goose Homes, an Indiana-based builder that works on energy-efficient homes, has served as the project’s general contractor and has been providing more upgrades to the house.
The second phase of the project focused on updating the house’s water systems to achieve the goal of net-zero water. The team installed a system that captures rainwater from the roof and an interior system that filters water for drinking water usage; and implemented water reuse systems, including shower-to-toilet greywater recycling and energy-efficient fixtures. Whirlpool partnered with Kohler, which equipped the house with the toilets, faucets and showers. A new suite of energy- and water-efficient Whirlpool brand appliances — dishwashers and laundry machines — were also incorporated.
“The plumbing fixtures and how they work with the outside capture was one of the first things we integrated. This caused us to ask more questions like: ‘how can we utilize more water in the dishwasher without using more absolute water?’” Voglewede says. “We want to learn how we change standards so people aren’t scared of things like a washing machine using greywater.”
Researchers realized early on that the integration of energy and water systems is crucial to reaching the end goal of net-zero.
“You can’t just focus on water or energy, you have to focus on the entire envelope of the house,” Schneemann says.
The third phase, which is still in the scoping stage, will be focused on net-zero waste to landfill.
“One of the first things we’re doing in this phase is using a new Whirlpool brand appliance called Zera, which will convert food scraps into usable fertilizer. We’re utilizing strategies that reuse waste in more practical and actionable ways,” Schneemann explains.
ReNEWW’s data collection is comprised of readings from before and after the retrofit. Currently, there are more than 120 different channels in the ReNEWW House, which is believed to be one of the most metered houses in existence. At least 30 of these channels monitor temperature, electrical monitoring is on every circuit in the house, and flow meters are attached to virtually every pipe in the house.
One of the biggest challenges participants in the ReNEWW experience face, as most involved in the trades understand, is the bridge between performance and comfort. As codes and regulations encourage more efficient processes, systems are still expected to perform at high levels, which means there’s less to sacrifice.
“Codes are continually demanding more efficiency. We want to meet those efficiency goals while still maintaining a high level of performance. Let’s say you have a water efficient dishwasher, for example. That’s great, but if you have to run it multiple times, it’s obviously not going to save you water,” Schneemann says. “This is the most crucial element; you can’t sacrifice anything in the search for efficiency. From a technical standpoint it provides some really interesting challenges.”
Yet, ReNEWW House has been able to move beyond many of its challenges because it has remained cognizant of the evolving processes and technologies and open to new ideas.
“We try to open up the house as much as we can. This technology is not as far as people think. Green building has come a long way. In the early days of sustainability, the first green chemicals just didn’t clean anything,” Voglewede explains. “The first efficiency light bulbs had mercury, made your skin look sick and took forever to turn on. A lot of companies have learned how to improve performance.”
The ReNEWW team also gets over various hurdles by knowledge sharing.
“Knowledge sharing helps us create that private/public partnership model in a more open environment that hasn’t always been possible in the past. This shows the progressive changes that universities have made to adapt to this idea of start-ups and perennial commercialization,” Voglewede says. “Companies have also wised up to the fact that they can’t all have not-invented-here syndrome.”
Homeowners and contractors interested in retrofits
Around the same time Schneemann joined the ReNEWW project, he became a homeowner. This has given him more perspective on what a homeowner can do to save energy and water.
“My eyes were opened to all the different types of energy-saving technologies that are out there that are actually viable. A project like this gives people who have moved into an older home ideas on how they can reduce their cost in monthly utilities. At the end of the day, that’s what homeowners care about — to lower their cost and increase their comfort,” Schneemann says.
The ReNEWW home offers many benefits to builders and contractors who want to know what’s out there and what to do.
“A green home sells for more and costs less to operate,” Voglewede says. “Technology is changing fast. A project like this gives builders and contractors the opportunity to see how a home can come together. It shows them that they don’t necessarily have to do everything all at once and that they don’t have to compromise.”
Whirlpool has been working on its outreach efforts so that others can follow along with the project and its implications. This is why they’ve been providing online tools, such as water calculators and interactive videos, for consumers and contractors.
“These tools bring the multi-stakeholders together. It shows contractors that green building actually makes the house more affordable. More people can afford their houses, which creates more demand, ” Voglewede says.
Whirlpool continues to invest in ways to expand tools and educational outreach, so that more people will want to learn about the ReNEWW House’s larger implications.
What’s next for ReNEWW
While ReNEWW House is being geared up for the third phase, it also has other developments in the works. The ReNEWW House team has its sights set on the outdoor space as well, looking into strategies that will impact irrigation and make sense, especially from a plumbing perspective.
Whirlpool is also interested in viewing this project in a more multi-family urban living space. The company recently joined the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, working with companies like P&G, Ford, BMW, Apple and more.
“We’re starting to look at how to make sustainable living truly aspirational with a much lower footprint. And we are doing some of this by looking at urban spaces where maybe people have less control over how much they wire or plumb,” Voglewede says.
Open house policy
Over the summer the ReNEWW House opened up to other Whirlpool employees, who were able to do their own research in the house. Employees were only in the house for a week, but many reported a change in the way they see living spaces.
“I think we’re proving that it’s a lot more possible than even we thought. When we bring in other people, I think they get the same understanding. No one so far who has entered the house has left unscathed. The house has a long-lasting effect on how people can change their own behavior,” Voglewede says. “If you think about a house that generates more energy than it uses, you will realize it’s a pretty awesome concept."
For more information visit: renewwhouse.com.