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PNC SmartHome: An Inspirational Exhibit of Extreme Energy Efficiency and Carbon Reduction

Category: Environmental Sustainability

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2012 edition of Museum magazine.

The term “natural history” often evokes a sense of the past, but increasingly The Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) is showing the way to a more sustainable future. In 2011, CMNH developed an ambitious exhibit,
the PNC SmartHome, to demonstrate the energy-efficient house of the future; a house designed to stay warm through a Cleveland winter without a conventional furnace. Planning for the SmartHome began in late 2010 when CMNH staff members were making preparations for mounting a major traveling exhibit on the science of climate change. They wondered what else they could do to communicate the complex and challenging issue of climate change. Could they do something hopeful to demonstrate real solutions? Could they, for instance, build a house that would show how dramatic reductions in carbon emissions are really possible? Could they find a suitable vacant lot for a house, design it, get the plans through the city permitting process and raise funds to build it all in a couple of months? Could they find a construction team that could build a house in a matter of weeks; a home that was different from any house built in Northeast Ohio? And could the house be built next to the museum as an exhibit and then moved later to the vacant lot where it could be installed permanently and sold?

Notwithstanding a certain amount of drama (including the rainiest spring construction season in Cleveland history). the answers to these questions turned out to be yes. And the PNC SmartHome opened at the museum for guided tours on June 6, 2011. The project had a number of goals that stretched the boundaries of a typical museum exhibit:

~ Give thousands of people hands-on experience with attractive techniques of green building and energy conservation.

~ Build local capacity for advanced green building and raise building design standards in Cleveland.

~ Support efforts of neighborhood development organizations to help residents save energy and save money.

~ Broaden awareness of the climate change impacts of the building sector.

~ Build a practical house that would be an asset for a Cleveland neighborhood.

For the energy performance goal, the 2,800-square-foot, three-bedroom SmartHome was designed to achieve Passive House certification, the world’s most rigorous building energy standard. According to the U.S Passive House Institute: “A Passive House is a very well-insulated, virtually air-tight building that is primarily heated by passive solar gain and by internal gains from people, electrical equipment, etc. Energy losses are minimized. Any remaining heat demand is provided by an extremely small source. Avoidance of heat gain through shading and window orientation also helps to limit any cooling load, which is similarly minimized. An energy recovery ventilator provides a constant, balanced fresh air supply. The result is an impressive system that not only saves up to 90 percent of space heating costs but also provides a uniquely terrific indoor air quality.”

Because of their very low energy demands, most passive houses can achieve net-zero energy performance with the addition of a small amount of renewable energy generation. Thus, they are a major step toward building carbon-neutral communities. Buildings are responsible for nearly half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, so strategies to reduce these emissions from carbon-based fuels must focus a great deal on producing better buildings.

For CMNH, the SmartHome project was a natural extension of public education and climate change work already underway. It turned abstract policy discussions into a tangible exhibit that helped people see the opportunities inherent in transitioning to a low-carbon future. At a time when public opinion polls showed a declining understanding of climate science in the U.S., it was important to create educational experiences that helped mainstream audiences realize that dramatic reductions of carbon emissions were possible. While thousands of passive houses homes have been built in Europe, only a handful of them have been built in the U.S. and none in Northeast Ohio. So the SmartHome, with its super-insulation, virtually air-tight construction, high-performance windows, energy-recovery ventilation and orientation for passive solar heat gain, brought new design ideas to the region.

As an exhibit, the SmartHome was a hit. Nearly 10,000 museum visitors went on guided tours. Tens of thousands of additional people viewed the interpretive signage and ecological landscaping features (including displays of native plants and stormwater management techniques) surrounding the house. And the project attracted extensive media coverage locally and nationally.

The SmartHome also created many partnership opportunities. The project involved more than 100 partners, including contractors, suppliers, neighborhood development organizations, the City of Cleveland and even local artists, who provided environmentally inspired artwork and furnishings for the exhibit. City residents from nearby neighborhoods were invited to free SmartHome tours and workshops on home energy savings. The SmartHome design-build team conducted technical workshops for local builders, architects, city officials, home inspectors and others in the home building industry. And CMNH staff worked with Enterprise Community Partners, a national funder of urban redevelopment and a supporter of the SmartHome, to organize a tour and roundtable discussion among Cleveland neighborhood groups about energy efficiency and affordable housing.

Inspired by the SmartHome, other building projects in Northeast Ohio are now incorporating passive design principles, including a new building for a community theater group. The project’s design-build team is getting orders for more passive houses. The team is also exploring the feasibility of prefabricating insulated SmartHome wall systems for sale throughout the country. Thus, the project could have economic development spin-offs for Northeast Ohio.

Image of a house on a flatbed truck. Interior of a decorated home.

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s SmartHome helped educate visitors about climate change before being moved to a permanent location.

According to the project architect, Chuck Miller of Doty & Miller Architects: “The PNC SmartHome has served as a catalyst that turns the wheels of curious minds and inspires entrepreneurs. The seeds of future opportunities are already starting to grow. We can see that future happening now with benefits to our economy, an improved quality of life and preservation of resources for future generations.”

In October 2011, the SmartHome was moved to its permanent site a few blocks from CMNH. It will be sold and become the home of a Cleveland family. Thus, it will be a permanent investment in the revitalization of the city, as well as an enduring symbol of how a museum of natural history can be a center for innovative thinking about science and sustainability.


David Beach is director, GreenCityBlueLake Institute, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

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