Making "Green" Mainstream

A History of Energy-Efficient Housing in the United States

April 25, 2015
May/June 2015
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2015 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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I was recently excited to learn about a highly energy-efficient house designed by collaborating students from Syracuse University, SUNY, and Onondaga Community College. The students’ design won DOE’s Challenge Home Student Design Competition in 2014 and was described as “completely self-sufficient for energy.” The home was also “realistic” and “buildable.”

When I see prototype homes that offer comfortable, efficient, cost-effective living space, my excitement is tempered by my experience researching the history of energy-efficient housing in the United States. Writing my dissertation on this topic, I discovered many prototype homes designed or built during the energy crisis of the 1970s and hailed as harbingers of the future—long before anyone was talking about “green” building. Most aimed for a conventional aesthetic and easily buildable design, yet still used innovative-at-the-time features such as solar panels and thermal mass. In 2015, many of their design features are still not mainstream. The following examples from the 1970s illustrate a few early attempts to mainstream innovative energy-saving designs.

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Rendering from the Brookhaven House brochure shows the south elevation.

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Rendering of Brookhaven House's east elevation.

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A rendering of the Brookhaven House’s thermal walls, showing future owners that they are specially designed for heat storage.

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A cross-section of the Brookhaven House, looking west.

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A page in the Roseville House brochure showcases the home’s gazebo as an energy-saving feature.

The Minimum Energy Dwellings

In May 1976, the Los Angeles Times reported on a pair of innovative houses under construction in Mission Viejo, California. Designed to demonstrate solutions to the nation’s energy crisis (especially severe in Southern California), the houses were called Minimum Energy Dwellings (MEDs). These “energy-thrifty” houses had double-glazed windows, twice the insulation of conventional houses (twice the level required by building codes), “wide eaves to shade windows, a light building color to reflect heat and the most effective orientation on the lot.” Three organizations had collaborated to fund them: the Federal Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA, predecessor of DOE); the Southern California Gas Company; and the Mission Viejo Company, a real estate developer.

Although the MEDs showcased several innovative energy-saving features, from an architectural perspective they were quite conventional. The MEDs were adapted from an existing model that the Mission Viejo Company had begun marketing the previous summer. They were designed to appeal to middle-class home buyers in Orange County. Of the two homes built in 1976, one was a residence for a family, and the other was a walk-through demonstration house for builders, developers, and the public. Researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory also used the houses to study the effects of extreme energy efficiency on indoor air quality (IAQ), which was just beginning to emerge as a public health issue at the time.

In 1976, Maxine Savitz, then the federal government’s deputy assistant secretary for conservation and solar energy, described the rationale for a considerable investment in the MED project: “We wanted to demonstrate the substantial energy savings that could occur from a number of conservation measures, such as extra thermal mass in the walls, additional insulation and other things … I see the project as proving the effectiveness of energy conservation measures and getting builders to go ahead and put those ideas into houses as a routine matter.” Experimenting with energy-saving innovations in a demonstration house was an important first step in validating them, but without adoption by the home-building industry, such innovations could neither become standard features in American housing nor reduce the nation’s residential energy consumption. Requiring builders to alter their designs in order to improve energy efficiency—much less maintain IAQ—would be a major point of contention in the early 1980s, particularly in progressive California. Savitz also noted that “in a lot of people’s minds conservation still means curtailment. We must convince people that conservation does not have to be sacrifice.” Home builders were reluctant to take the financial risk of incorporating new features, materials, or designs without proven consumer acceptance and demand for them. Curtailment and sacrifice were not the values that they wanted to market to home buyers. It was therefore crucial that the MEDs look like normal suburban American homes.

“Mission Viejo Experimental Homes for Sale,” announced the Los Angeles Times real estate section in 1980. Some buyers might have appreciated the homes’ historical significance: “the unique houses were designed and built as part of a … research project designed to encourage developers to incorporate energy-efficient designs and features in residential construction.” Others might see environmental or economic benefits in owning a home “designed to use less than half the energy consumed in similar three-bedroom, two-bath conventional houses.” The announcement of the MED sale ran alongside, and was dwarfed by, advertisements for competing homes and condominiums in the Mission Viejo area, none of which advertised any special energy-saving features.

By 1989, one of the MEDs was back on the market. Thirteen years after its construction, the house was a piece of architectural history, and readers could not be expected to remember its origins in the energy crisis. “If you’ll recall,” wrote reporter Mike Flagg, “that was an era of oil embargoes and gas shortages, and the feds were looking for a type of house that could cut energy consumption in the typical tract home by 50%.” These demonstration houses had brought together diverse stakeholders with interests in promoting residential energy conservation, they had provided a useful research site for collecting data on indoor pollutant concentrations, and they had attracted media attention. However, ultimately the MEDs became more of a historical curiosity than a prototype for the new American home.

The Brookhaven House

Across the country from the MEDs, in 1979, the New Hampshire architectural firm Total Environmental Action prepared a booklet presenting its new project: the Brookhaven House. The house was two stories and spacious, complete with a peaked roof and a chimney. It was suitable for any suburban street in the United States. There was even a glass-enclosed greenhouse containing healthy plants. But upon closer inspection, the house was not as conventional as it appeared. First, unlike the front doors of most suburban homes, its front door would not necessarily face the street. “On some building sites,” the designers explained, “the north side of the house may be the front, while on others the south, east, or west sides may be facing the street.” This was because the Brookhaven House used solar energy, and thus required a large south wall or roof area facing true south. The apparent greenhouse was actually a sun space. It functioned as “an additional room that is a useful and pleasant space, and, more importantly, [as] a major solar collection device for the house.” The idyllic brick chimney peeking out above the roof was actually an extension of the house’s most important heat storage feature: 8-inch-thick walls of dark-colored brick, designed to store the day’s solar heat and release it “to offset the heating demand during the colder periods each night.” The combined effect of these energy-saving features was that the Brookhaven House used only one-third to one-fifth of the (heating) energy used by typical single-family homes. It was, according to its promotional booklet, “an economical part of the national commitment to increase energy self-reliance.”

The Brookhaven House took its name from the Brookhaven National Laboratory, on New York’s Long Island. It was built as a demonstration project on the lab’s grounds, where it was “thoroughly instrumented to monitor and analyze [its] heating performance.” In the late 1970s, DOE had targeted residential heating as a major drain on America’s energy resources; it was therefore an area with enormous energy conservation and economic savings potential. DOE had commissioned the Natural Thermal Storage Research Project to study thermal mass and passive solar as heating alternatives for America’s homes.

Although innovative and energy-saving were appealing qualities to some Americans, the authors of the Brookhaven House’s promotional brochure preferred to emphasize that the house was conventional and traditional, rather than unusual:

The Brookhaven House is more than a demonstration of an engineering principle. It is attractive to builders because the thermal mass materials selected are also common construction materials. Homebuyers will find the house attractive, comfortable, and well-planned. … Traditional in shape, the Brookhaven House conveys a unique warmth and comfort for a family with diverse needs and interests.

After a decade in which many young people had moved to rural areas and experimented with unconventional housing designs and construction techniques, the creators of the Brookhaven House aligned their project with the preferences of mainstream builders and buyers. For each of the house’s three major energy-conserving features—strategic siting, thermal mass, and passive solar—there were also aesthetic and functional advantages. In other words, what was efficient from an energy perspective would also be efficient and economical from a construction perspective. The creators of the Brookhaven House presented it as a regular home that Americans would want to buy and that builders would want to build.

Energy-Efficient Housing in Minnesota

In the Midwest, the 1977 Minnesota state legislature allocated $500,000 for the design and construction of single-family homes that would “demonstrate new and innovative technologies for conserving energy,” including earth sheltering (the architectural practice of using earth against building walls for external thermal mass) and solar power. Using a combination of public and private financing, the Innovative Housing and Underground Housing Task Force would facilitate the building of ten homes that demonstrated promising construction techniques and features for reducing America’s residential energy consumption.

The Task Force had concluded “that solar assisted earth sheltered housing was technically feasible and could be very desirable.” But it also recognized the difficulty of convincing builders and home buyers to accept new and unusual housing designs. The Minnesota houses, then, could potentially change public opinion, promote wider adoption of energy-saving features, and reduce Americans’ residential energy consumption. “It was determined,” the Task Force reported, “that the largest barrier to this type of housing is market acceptance and establishing market value.” The project would respond to this challenge by making both public relations and research top priorities.

In order to promote both the marketing and research goals of its project, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (MHFA) secured a combination of funding sources and participants from both the public and private sectors. Publicly funded houses would be built on state-owned land (three in state parks) and occupied by state employees who would normally be provided housing as a condition of their employment.

A January 1978 report outlined the four fundamental goals of the project. “Visibility” led the list, and strategic siting of the houses was an important first step. “A high level of visibility and good public access is essential to allow first-hand touching and feeling of solar/earth-sheltered houses. Greater public awareness and acceptance … will be gained through this visibility.” Once built, all of the houses would hold open houses for ten weeks. Not only would they be on display to the public, but they would also be settings for data collection, experimentation, and research. Another of the project’s goals was to collect “reliable data … concerning annual energy consumption, construction costs, construction techniques, public response, institutional response, and the impact of the demonstration houses on the occupants’ lifestyle.” Two conventional Minnesota homes would be monitored “to establish a basis for comparing energy in the demonstration homes.” The MHFA had included in the houses’ sale contracts a provision for monitoring by scientists, thus guaranteeing that the houses, and their occupants, would function as research sites and participants, respectively. The homes would be monitored for a minimum of two years “to establish general energy usage and be well documented as to construction technique and results.” As it did in the MEDs, the Lawrence Berkeley Lab studied the IAQ in these homes, using its Energy Efficient Buildings Mobile Laboratory.

The MHFA and its partners in this project intended to showcase these homes not just as an interesting experiment, but also as a viable option for mainstream American families. While they would begin as demonstration houses, their ultimate purpose was to become real homes. In this way, they were similar to the MEDs in Mission Viejo—built to demonstrate the power and appeal of energy efficiency but then put on the real estate market.

To demonstrate that innovative energy-conserving housing was compatible with mainstream building practices, the MHFA contracted with five different private builders for the construction of five houses in 1978–79. One development in Minneapolis actually featured 12 town houses, showing that multifamily housing could be as innovative and energy conserving as single-family housing. A house in Willmar, Minnesota, was even built by students from a local vocational-technical school, showing that innovative and energy-conserving techniques were not the exclusive specialty of niche builders. The three publicly financed houses were built in state parks, fulfilling the promise of visibility, accessibility, and provision of housing for state employees.

The MHFA decided to collaborate with the University of Minnesota to build, study, and promote earth-sheltered solar housing. While they were doing so, another Minnesota institution, the Northern States Power Company, was developing its own response to the energy crisis. The Roseville Energy Saver House—advertised in 1978 as “two stories packed with energy saving ideas!”—was designed to show that an energy-saving home could be “efficient, economical, and yet technically practical.” Like the others, the Roseville House was designed to have mainstream appeal. With two stories and three bedrooms, it would look appropriate on any suburban American street, and this is how the charming sketch on the Northern States Power Company’s brochure presented it: tucked into a hillside and surrounded by trees. Roseville revealed its special features only in its promotional brochure, not in the appearance of the house itself. For many developers of energy-conserving housing in the late 1970s, it was fine for a house to be different but not to look different.

learn more

To learn more about the Mission Viejo houses, see Green, Terence. “To Study Energy Conservation, Two Experimental Houses Rising.” Los Angeles Times, May 23, 1976, and “Mission Viejo Experimental Homes for Sale,” Los Angeles Times, January 6, 1980.

Learn more about the award-winning SUNY house.

All images were obtained from the following sources:

"The Brookhaven House" brochure, Environmental Energy Technologies Technical Documents, Accession Number 434-02-193, ARO-4652, box 8, folder 9, Brookhaven House, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Archives and Records Office, 1 Cyclotron Rd. MS: 69R0102, Berkeley, California 94720.

“The Roseville House: Two Stories Packed With Energy Saving Ideas!” brochure, Environmental Energy Technologies Technical Documents, Accession Number 434-02-193, ARO-4652, box 8, folder 14, Energy Efficiency Building, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Archives and Records Office, 1 Cyclotron Rd. MS: 69R0102, Berkeley, California 94720.

The Roseville House had numerous energy-saving features to demonstrate, from the low-tech (landscaping that shielded the house from winter winds and summer sun), to the increasingly standard (extra insulation in walls and ceilings), to the experimental (Annual Cycle Energy Storage and load management). The brochure explained this last feature in simple language:

How many times on a cold January day to you hear someone mutter, “Wish we could save some of this cold for next summer”? Then in July you hear, “Wish we could save some of this heat for next winter.” That’s exactly what an Annual Cycle Energy Storage (ACES) system does. It saves heat and cold for when they’re needed; more important, it saves nonrenewable fuel resources.

The Roseville House relied upon another strategy to reduce energy use: load management. The owners would be alerted to peak and off-peak times by a simple small red light in the kitchen, and certain house features, such as the electric heat pump and the electric water heater, would run only during off-peak hours.

The Roseville House accomplished this without compromising its aesthetics. A 16,000-gallon water reservoir, “discreetly located beneath the two-car garage,” froze during the winter as its heat was removed by a heat pump and used to heat the house. During the heat of summer, “the water remain[ed] cool enough to cool air circulating through the house. By fall, however, the ice … melted and the reservoir … warmed to about 50°F for the winter heating season ahead. The annual cycle [began] again.” Solar panels on the garage roof supplemented the ACES system.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Although some of their features—like solar panels—are becoming more popular, none of these historical examples of energy-efficient, mainstream homes actually went as mainstream as their designers wanted. Why? I hope to start a conversation about the adoption and diffusion of innovations. Whether about designs, technologies, financing, or productive collaborations that support research, there is much we can learn from energy-saving designs of the recent past.

Mariel Wolfson is a freelance writer focusing on energy and environment. She recently completed a Ph.D. at Harvard University with a dissertation on the history of energy-efficient and healthy housing in the United States.

Thank you to John Stoner for access to the archives and records of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which provided the bulk of the research materials used in this article.

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