The U.S. Department of Energy, saying we're in an "all-out sprint to beat the climate crisis," will spend $5 million in Knoxville on a project it hopes will become a model for the rest of the country.
Oak Ridge National Lab and the Knoxville Community Development Corporation will work together to retrofit the exteriors of roughly a dozen single-family public housing units to cut home heating energy costs. But the project is wildly different from a typical home improvement upgrade.
It uses 3D printing to create a new, high-tech shell that fits around existing buildings to the exact millimeter.
The test will help advance the technology, transform the look of the building's exterior and should save residents a ton of money.
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"Buildings are responsible for about 40% of the total energy demand in the U.S.," said Diana Hun, building envelope research group leader at Oak Ridge National Lab. Buildings are responsible for over 75% of peak power demand and electricity use, mostly because of heating and cooling. "Retrofitting existing buildings is essential to achieve our decarbonization goals."
If all goes according to projections, families living in these homes will see 75% reductions in water heating, home heating and home cooling energy use, reducing their financial burden.
“Faster and more efficient construction and renovation methods that improve our nation’s supply of affordable housing are the kinds of transformative innovations we need to lower costs for working families and build a better America,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a press statement.
Locally, the project is part of Knoxville Community Development Corporation’s Transform Western Plan in the Western Heights neighborhood. Part of the plan involves renovating 8 to 12 buildings in the aging section of Western Heights.
"There's always a concern over utility costs but the other piece is the aesthetics of the neighborhood," said Ben Bentley, Knoxville's Community Development Corporation executive director and CEO. "The 1938 buildings are fantastically built. They're very sturdy, but they don't look great."
The project is intended to demonstrate that rapid, low-cost building retrofits are possible for energy efficiency. It's part of the Department of Energy’s Advanced Building Construction Initiative. Knoxville’s retrofit project was one of seven awardees chosen nationwide.
How the transformation will happen
The buildings will be retrofitted with 3D printed panels designed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The panels are made of fiberglass and foam insulation and have an integrated heat pump system. The pumps are tied into the home HVAC system to maximize energy efficiency.
The panels can even store heat energy for later use.
"It's a package of technologies," Hun said. "We are integrating heat pumps, water heaters and heat recovery units, sensors and controls ... so that they can optimize their performance and work with each other to provide maximum comfort and decrease energy use."
The panels are made-to-measure for each building using 3D scans of the exteriors. A robotic system will track each panel during installation to ensure that the panels are installed quickly and accurately.
The first installations will be done on vacant buildings to iron out the process. Then project coordinators hope to be able to install them on occupied buildings.
"The end goal is for the residents to be able to stay in the buildings" Hun said. "We don't want to be relocating people. That just creates more obstacles."
The installation is expected to be finished in roughly four years. Four buildings are expected to be done by the end of 2023. The final piece of the project will involve retrofitting the exterior if the Boys & Girls Clubs building in Western Heights.
The whole project is a proof-of-concept to quickly modernize older construction in the United States to reduce energy consumption, utility bills and carbon emissions. Hun name hopes that Knoxville will serve as an example for the nation's construction industry.
"Our goal is for people to adopt these technologies," Hun said. "So we need to get over these hurdles."
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Oak Ridge National Lab retrofits homes to help energy efficiency