Energy-efficient homes to be living labs

Meagan Leach, Sci ’05, is heading a project to retrofit houses with energy-efficient upgrades.
Meagan Leach, Sci ’05, is heading a project to retrofit houses with energy-efficient upgrades.

A handful of students may find themselves living as lab rats next year—with the environment in mind. Three houses will be upgraded to conserve energy.

“I haven’t heard of anything else like it,” said Meagan Leach, Sci ’05. “It was such a good idea, and we had to see if we could make it a reality.”

Leach is the project coordinator for “the Living Energy Lab,” a concept she created with Boyd Davis, an adjunct professor in the mining engineering department.

The project will retrofit three older student houses around campus with energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies, Leach said.

“It is such an integrated approach into looking at reducing greenhouse gases and energy consumption,” Leach said. “It’s incorporating students and the community. It also is a great place to help create a centre of focus.”

Student tenants will live in the houses while the project team collects data, she said.

“The landlord will let us use the houses but we won’t own them or pay rent,” she said.

She said the landlords will allow the team to install and monitor the technological upgrades.

“One [house] will have low-cost upgrades, one will have mid-cost upgrades and one will have innovative technology upgrades,” Leach said.

Low-cost upgrades will include energy-efficient light bulbs, thermal blinds and water heater timers. Mid-cost upgrades will consist of replacing old appliances with more energy-efficient ones, and professional renovations that will improve insulation.

The innovative upgrades will include solar-powered hot water heaters and photovoltaic cells that turn sunlight into electricity, she said.

Leach said the houses will incorporate ideas and research by engineering students as part of their fourth-year projects.

For instance, she said one student will research urban wind turbines in conjunction with the house.

“Basically, he’s using our living lab to do his research,” she said.

Leach said the definition of innovative is open-ended, to allow maximum student input through design projects.

“It doesn’t necessarily have to be space-age technology,” she said.

Leach said she came up with the idea last summer while working with Davis.

“We were talking about an engineering education that is hands-on,” she said. “The novel thing about this project is that it will be a permanent [demonstration].

“It can showcase new technologies when they come out and people can relate to it a bit more because people are actually living there,” Leach said.

“The data is for technology that is actually in use, which makes the project exciting.”

Leach said the design team is currently working towards establishing partnerships with various organizations.

“We are exploring the possibilities of working with Queen’s [Apartment and Housing Services] on this project,” she said. “We have also been working with the Integrated Learning Centre and the Faculty of Applied Science because we want to incorporate data collected from the living labs into courses.”

Leach said the project is also looking to form a partnership with Hearthmakers Energy Cooperative, which provides resources on energy-related technologies and energy assessments in the Kingston community.

Leach said she wants the project to be up and running over a two-year period, and hopes to secure $200,000 in grants and donations for the two years.

“Right now we are looking to hire our project team,” she said. “We are also applying for several very large grants.”

Leach said the living labs will successfully work with incremental funding. The team will begin retrofitting and renovating the three homes next summer so they can begin monitoring consumption in September 2006.

“[The point] is not to have the craziest technology—it is to showcase new things that are in the market that fit into an urban person’s life,” she said. “It is to show what is out there without largely impacting the people who are living in the house.”

Although the design team is working out details, no houses have yet been selected, Leach said.

The number of students who will live in the labs will be determined when the houses are selected.

Leach said living in one of the houses will not be an intrusive experience.

“[Students] should be able to carry on with their normal routine,” she said. “The changes are not meant to be disruptive, and are designed to be integrated into the house.”

A preliminary fact sheet for the projects says data will be monitored through different metering methods, sensors and temperature transducers, which convert energy into different forms.

Leach said tenants will have minimal involvement in the project, but that could change.

“Tenants will just need to live there,” she said. “Someday it could be neat if it became a sustainable living house where tenants did want to participate.

“They may try and have zero waste or compost their garbage.”

Leach said the living labs will also feature an interactive website that can be used as a resource by homeowners and educators.

She said she hopes one day the living labs can be used for research by other faculties outside of Applied Science.

“It provides a place for students to apply what they learn in the classroom, to realize problems we are facing in the world at the moment and to show students what they can do to reduce their energy bills.”

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