btw Summer 2014
Are We Being Watched? Convenience vs. Privacy in the Brave New World of Home Automation
Size Matters Why Bigger Homes Arenâ€™t Better
Natural Selections Earth-friendly D.I.Y. Cleaning Products
Urban Renewal Giving new (and greener) life to a once-rundown Boston building
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inside 6/ editor’s letter
know too much about you?
The brave new world of home automation is as energy-efficient as it is convenient. But are we giving up our personal privacy by embracing it?
34/ small wonders
10/ clean up your act Homemade home products that are as earth-friendly as they are wallet-friendly.
14/ warming trends How to greenify your home’s temperatures without building a whole new one? Cozy up to the science of the ‘Deep Energy Retrofit.’
16/ urban renewal Giving new, green (and beautiful) life to a once run-down building.
26/ does your home
When it comes to homes, bigger isn’t always better.
42/ energy star Some of the biggest leaps toward the future of power are being taken right in our backyard, at one of the world’s biggest cleantech incubators.
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from the editor
On the Watch It all started as an off-hand conversation over M&Ms. We at B.T.W. magazine had gathered to talk about an upcoming profile story, and instead our chat quickly turned to the sudden slew of intelligent devices flooding the market, all designed to run your home and to make decisions that control your environment for you based on the personal habits of yours—that they track. That conversation soon exploded, and turned into this issue’s full-blown cover story, “Does Your Home Know Too Much About You?” (page 26) and then into an evening event and big-picture discussion (of the same title) we held last month with a panel of industry experts. The mission of both? To tackle questions raised by the imminent future of the automated home, and to ask whether we as consumers truly know how much of our personal privacy we may or may not be giving up to the third parties (read: Big Data companies) when we embrace the convenience of certain smart home technologies. There are unquestionable benefits that come from living in a house that all but runs itself, but it also behooves us all to understand (and keep an eye on) what’s being done with the information our homes collect about us, too, just like any other aspect of wise consumerism. That awareness is what makes us every bit as smart as the devices around us. Welcome to the brave new world of home automation—and to the conversation! Alexandra Hall Executive Producer, B.T.W.
from the publisher
What’s the Big Idea? It was quite a night, and quite a panel. The room was packed, the speakers were full of ideas, and the beer was cold. B.T.W.’s first public panel discussion, “Does your house know too much about you?” kicked off with a look at Google’s recent purchase of Nest home devices and right from the get go, one of our panelists, Deborah Hurley of Harvard University, got right to the point. “Yes, Google is going to get your data,” she asserted, though probably not for nefarious purposes. From there, our panelists dove right into a public talk of the future of home automation—and not just devices like Nest’s thermostat, but all kinds of other devices that make buildings run more efficiently, and collect information about how we live in our homes. Ideas and different perspectives were traded on the panel, which also included Susan Cashen of Control4; Joey Kolchinsky, founder of OneVision Resources; green entrepreneur Jason Hanna of Embue; Jim Bride of Energy Tariff Experts; and Rockport Capital Partner Daniel Hullah. The goal was to get the community both educated about developments in the industry and to start them thinking about what to expect as consumers. It was among the first in what is sure to be many public talks about energy efficiency and the future of our homes—a successful back-and-forth between experts that we at B.T.W. were extremely proud to make happen. We’ll be doing more events like it, and covering all of it in future issues. Stay tuned!
Harold Simansky B.T.W. Publisher and CEO of 360Chestnut
CON SUL TI NG
Clean up Your Act
Homemade home products that are as earth-friendly as they are wallet-friendly. By Caroline Egan Stocking your cleaning cabinet with high-quality green cleaning products may be environmentally sound and healthy, but with their high price tags, it can also get pretty darn expensive. A clever solution? Whip up some natural products that you make yourself from three primary ingredients: vinegar, lemon juice, and baking soda. These natural cleaners can be used in the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room, and sometimes elsewhere. Here’s a quick guide to how and where to use them, and what to avoid when doing so. And remember: It’s always best to test any cleaner on a hidden area first to make s ure no color change or damage occurs.
Vinegar Vinegar works much like an all-purpose cleaner, and it’s also a great disinfectant and deodorizer. Use an old spray bottle, and mix equal parts of it with water. (Be wary that improperly diluted vinegar is acidic and can eat away at tile grout.) The smell of vinegar will disappear when it dries, so your home won’t reek like salad dressing. In the bathroom, use it to clean the bathtub, toilet, sink, and countertops. For the toilet bowl, use pure vinegar to get rid of unsightly rings. Flush the toilet to allow the water level to go down before pouring the undiluted vinegar around the inside of the rim, then scrub down the bowl. You can also mop the floor in the bathroom with a vinegar/water solution. It also eats away the soap scum and hard water stains on your fixtures and tiles, leaving them shiny. In the kitchen, clean the top of the stove (or most any appliance) with the diluted solution. Countertop surfaces can be clean and disinfected with the same spray. And in the laundry room, vinegar can be used as a natural fabric softener, and is especially helpful for those with sensitive skin issues. Simply add half of a cup of vinegar to the rinse cycle in place of storebought fabric softener. And when you’re done, you can even use vinegar to clean your washing machine.
Baking Soda It can be used to scrub surfaces in much the same way as commercial non-abrasive cleansers that scrub rather than scratch. In the kitchen, itâ€™s a well-known deodorizer; place a box in the fridge and freezer to absorb odors. Actually, put baking soda anywhere you need some powerful deodorizing action. Use it in trash cans, and even in shoes. And in the laundry room? Add it to loads as a fabric softener. All three of these products are significantly cheaper and safer than buying a product at the store full of chemicals. Consider them just one more way that going green can save you some green.
Lemons and lemon juices Lemon juice can be used to dissolve soap scum and hard water deposits. Itâ€™s also a great substance to clean and shine brass and copper. For the kitchen, mix lemon juice with vinegar or baking soda to make cleaning pastes. For example, cut a lemon in half and sprinkle a little baking soda on the cut section of the lemon. Use this to scrub dishes, surfaces, and stains. And put a whole lemon peel through the garbage disposal; it freshens the drain and the kitchen. (Be aware that lemon juice can act as a natural bleach, so again, always do a test first.) You can also use it throughout your home--mix a cup of olive oil with half a cup lemon juice and you create your own polish for hardwood furniture. And in the laundry room, straight lemon juice can also be used to treat stains, thanks to its natural bleaching qualities.
Warming Trends How to greenify your home’s temperatures without building a whole new one? Cozy up to the science of the ‘Deep Energy Retrofit.’ By David Connelly Legg Our homes are a lot like us. When we get chilly, we tend to dress in layers. The same is true for a home that’s undergone something called a ‘Deep Energy Retrofit’ (or D.E.R., for short) —a process that most often begins with plans for remodeling (examples: updated siding, roof shingles, or new windows).
From there, the “super-insulating” process begins—meaning that the existing insulation is kept as the first layer (much like a comfortable sweater, if you will), and then inches of rigid foam insulation get added to the exterior, and behave effectively like a parka. What’s the upshot of all that? The rigid insulation completely stops air from escaping from the home (at points like joints, junctions, windows, and doors). So when done with careful guidance, houses have been tested at 85% air leakage reduction. So you can say goodbye to drafts. Also like us, a Deep Energy Retrofit “breathes.” For many years, there was a popular misconception that all houses “breathe” and that this breathing was perfectly acceptable. We now know this to be untrue. Underinsulated homes leak air when you don’t want them too (like during a blizzard) and don’t admit fresh air in when you need it most. By adding mechanical systems to regulate airflow, a D.E.R. is able to control ventilation much like our lungs do, to ensure you’re getting the exact air volume, temperature, and humidity your
home needs to keep you healthy and comfortable. So by dressing your home in layers, you can save a lot of energy—and money— with a smaller, less expensive air system. Aside from the benefits of having comfortable, well-regulated temperature and air quality, there are plenty of other, perhaps less obvious benefits to having a highperformance home. One of the most striking benefits reported by owners is the tranquility; super-insulation not only halts unwanted airflow, it also blocks outside noise, meaning that you can quite literally leave the outer world’s distractions of the at the door. Experts have studied energy bills before and after for dozens of D.E.R.s; many achieved over 70% annual savings. In fact, with solar panels attached, some have even reached Zero Net Energy (energy created over one year equals energy consumed). In short, a well-done D.E.R. project is like getting an entirely new home, but one that retains your original woodwork, design, and memories. And then stays usable for generations to come.
The Northeast Sustainable Energy Association and Dave Legg Energy Associates are offering a series of one day workshops on deep energy retrofits throughout Massachusetts. These workshops will explore the techniques and costs in greater detail, and examine local retrofit sites as case studies. Find out more at nesea.org/be-local.
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t was the very definition of a fixer-upper: A decaying Victorian in an enclave of Dorchester that, while once
affluent, had fallen into serious disrepair over the last few decades. And then along came an influx of developers looking to not only bring new life to the area aesthetically, but also make a commitment to taking the neighborhoodâ€™s homes in a decidedly health-conscious, environmentally sound direction. Hereâ€™s the story of how a once rundown building (a former crack house, in fact), got more than just a makeover, but a brand new life.
By Alexandra Hall
First Steps Bought by a developer who had done a several similar projects in the South End, the building was large enough to accommodate three condo units once converted. But simply renovating and beautifying the building wouldn’t be enough to set it apart on the market. The developer wanted to differentiate that investment by creating three high-performance, energy-efficient units, which is where Brian Butler at Boston Green Building came into the picture. “They approached us to do all the retrofitting under the National Grid program,” says Butler. “Basically for every cubic square footage of leakage that you reduce on a home, they reimburse you $1.75.” With a home of this size, that would mean roughly $60,000 in immediate payback, plus the added allure of energy savings when selling the homes. Butler and his team got straight to work, gutting the building bottom to top.
High Energy Opposite page: In the kitchens, all Energy Star lighting and appliances were installed—which is required by the National Grid program.
All in the Details Within 6 months, Butler and his team had the work substantially complete. Everything was gutted; they brought in new plaster, poured a new slab in the basement, and fixed up much of the structure—including the wainscoting and tiger oak wood in a handful of rooms, and along the stairs on the bottom floor.
Creating Space Working with Eric Robinson and Kevin Deabler of Rode Architects, Butler at Boston Green Building completely reworked the building’s floor plan: They divided the second and third floors to create wide open kitchen space and living rooms that wouldn’t have existed if the floors were kept independent of one another. “That way each unit had a nice drama to it,” says Butler. “And the top two units were both able to have access to the clipped and sloped ceilings on the third floor.”
Let There be Light Windows throughout the house were all triple-glazed. That means each contains three panes of glass (most windows only have two). “That provides an extra insulated level of air,” says Butler, “so less heat is lost through the glass.”
Selling Points The project was finished after about six months, at which point the developer immediately put the three units on the market and within a matter of days, each condo was under agreement. “So not only did he receive about $60,000 in reimbursements for the retrofitting from National Grid,” says Butler, “but he also made very quick sales at a really good profit. And this was all at a time when real estate wasn’t selling very well. Needless to say, he was extremely happy.”
Changing Infrastructure Boston Green Building did a continuing installation of rigid foam board on the exterior of the house, and on the underside of the roof they used closedcell spray foam, thus doubling the code of insulation. That effectively brought the home to four times as much as most in Massachusetts, almost tripling the wall value. “That will keep more of the heat in and the cold out,” explains Butler. “It creates a completely tight, air-sealed environment, that results in a 75 to 80 percent reduction in the energy required for the house.”
DOES YOUR HOME KNOW TOO MUCH ABOUT YOU? Convenience vs. Privacy in the Brave New World of Home Automation By Alexandra Hall
Illustration by Eoghan Considine
It’s only a small thing, really. Unobtrusive looking, sleek and dark and gleaming, like a dollop of liquid obsidian. But its implications—both about the future of how we live and how much privacy we have— are larger than such a pretty little machine might suggest. The Nest smart thermostat, designed by former Apple designer Tony Fadell, is a device that connects via the Internet and to an entire network of other Nests in homes across the country, and it becomes smarter as it tracks our daily habits, adjusting the home’s temperature to our needs over time. That means it knows when you’re home, and exactly when. (“We know how many people are home during those times,” Fadell has said.). It also knows when you’re awake or asleep, and depending on how many Nests you have in your house, which rooms you’re in. The technology and power that makes this possible—every Nest thermostat contains 2 computers equivalent to both an iPhone and an iPod—is unquestionably a breakthrough. Nest also makes smoke detectors, and has made no secret that it plans to continue creating other home technologies that watch our behavior and learn from us. Moreover, it acts as a portal to a bevy of other automated devices made by other manufacturers throughout the home; imagine walking into a living room and having your favorite show automatically pop on the television. Or having a fridge that orders milk online when you’re running low. Or a front stoop that turns its light on and unlocks the door for you minutes before you arrive home from work. All of these devices will soon be around us (if you don’t own them already), taking note of what we do, and how and when we do it in our homes, learning from them, and changing accordingly. And now all of that information is being shared. Nest has been purchased for no less that 3.2 billion dollars—an exorbitant sum for just a thermostat company—by Google. The king of data collection. The upshot is, Google will now have the power to know not only when we’re on our computers, but anywhere else in our private homes.
If all that sounds paranoid, consider what we already know about Nest’s new owner: Google’s main focus isn’t in the business of hardware; it’s in the business of data collection and sales. Anyone who uses its free mail has probably noticed that the ads they’re being fed exactly reflect the content of their emails (yes, they read them, albeit anonymously), and web searches and history. Google sells that personal information to its advertisers. In short, we’re already being watched online—in exchange for the convenience of that free email. And many of us have made our peace with that. But what are the implication when we’re not just being watched online, but in our homes, too?
eyebrows have been raised—particularly since as the company’s owner, Google is technically not considered a third party. Even Nest’s business backers acknowledge that the issue of what’s done with our personal data from home devices should be watched. “It’s something we all need to pay a lot of attention to, and we are,” says Ron Coneybear of Shasta Ventures, a Nest investor. “I think it depends on the company. Most do keep your data secure. But think about all the ways we’re asked to trust these devices. Even your car is being driven by software now. Is it a concern? Yes. It doesn’t stop us from continuing to build more efficient machines. But yes, I pay attention to it. I’m not going to say I’m not worried about it.” There’s also the potential problem of keeping that data secure from other parties who might be able to get it illegally. “Data security is going to be a huge issue,” says Bride. “If someone hacks into your thermostat, they have access to all of your Wi-Fi activity.” And all of that also raises the question of how much control we have over the devices themselves, and how much do we really want our homes to be making decisions for us? In Texas, for example, where the electricity market has been deregulated and everyone has smartmeters, something called residential
demand response is in effect. “When power prices get really high, they can turn off your air conditioner,” says Bride. “The thermostat could run all of your other devices, and tell your dishwasher to delay starting until power prices are lower.” Such devices can always be overridden by the home’s owner, but only when they’re paying attention to the devices’ activity.
On one hand, there is something of an adrenaline rush to all this; the once distant-future energy-technology of something like Nest’s thermostat is now imminent, very possibly in many products, throughout. On the other, its imminence means that consumers adamantly against trading the convenience and energy-saving capabilities of such technology will need to stay on their guard—read the fine print in the privacy policies of their products, and understand and educate themselves about what is being shared, with whom, and why, if they want to ensure it is they who are in control of their living environments, not the other way around. The long-promised revolution of home automation is nigh. So the real question now is this: Will it look more like a scene straight out of The Jetsons? Or a scene out of 2001: A Space Odyssey? ✪
Homing Devices With just the push of a few buttons on your smartphone, our houses can now be monitored and run almost entirely on their own. A few examples:
NEST Alternatives NEST isnâ€™t the only thermostat company out there that can make your home smarter and save you energy and money. Hereâ€™s a breakdown of whatâ€™s currently available, with more coming soon.
By Eoghan Considine
Motison EcoBee Boasts all that Nest offers and more: Live weather updates, intelligent heating controls, alerts for system maintenance and monitoring, and reports. Starting at $164.99 on amazon.com.
Lennox iComfort Wi-Fi Comes with weather and system updates and alerts. No learning function, however. Pricing is more expensive than comparable products.
Not as functional as the other thermostats, but it does give you remote access to your heating, with the same functions as a normal seven-day programmable thermostat. It also comes at very reasonable price of $82, which makes it a good alternative for those who may not want to spend as much cash.
Honeywell Prestige Very Similar to the Lennox, Honeywell has a large number of heating controls with good features and design, yet no customer support is included. Pricing is considerably higher than similar products.
3M Filtrete Thermostat A pretty basic model with standard functions. It’s Wi-Fi based, cheap, and functional. $84.51 on radiothermostat.com/filtrate.
Venstar ColorTouch + Skyport Functioning similarly to most other smart thermostats, the ColorTouch works with the SkyPort accessory to give you total mobile access. It isn’t as detailed in terms of energy consumption and reporting (and doesn’t have the same learning capabilities) as the Nest or EcoBee. ColorTouch is $162 and SkyPort is $52.60 on amazon.com.
Allure EverSense The most stylish and functional alternative, it does what Nest does but it also has patented proximity settings to tell if you are home or not. It also links up with your phone to act as a wireless speaker, gives weather updates, and energy saving tips. Priced at $299 on allure-energy.com.
When it comes to homes, bigger isnâ€™t always better.
By Jeremiah Eck Eck | MacNeely Architects
Most of us would agree that small houses have unique attributes that make them appealing. They’re less expensive to build, easier to maintain, more sustainable (thanks to their judicious use of materials) and, perhaps most important of all, they touch our hearts as shelter that has deep roots in American history. (Think log cabins.) But there’s another characteristic of small houses that’s not talked about a lot: their value.
By value, I don’t just mean financial value but also psychological value. Small houses can combine those two measurements in a way that larger houses sometimes can’t. This combination of economy and psychology isn’t typically included in a discussion about design of houses, but I think it should be, because ultimately it’s the balance of financial and psychological value of our homes that mean the most to us. During the housing boom of the early 21st century, I watched with amazement as poorly designed and poorly built houses proliferated. It wasn’t unusual for these houses to be seven, eight, even twelve thousand square feet or larger. Easy money in the form of questionable mortgage loans fueled a market that came to a catastrophic end as house financial values were leveraged beyond any rational standard. Homeowners bought into the notion that as long as prices went up,
Above: Well-placed windows can make all the difference in making a small house feel large, as with this 1,200-square-foot house on Block Island.
This page: Small houses can add to their value by feeling more connected to their surrounding landscape. Opposite page: A second-floor balcony overlooking the living space below maximizes interior volume.
they could borrow against the assumed value of their homes and expect them to yield a high return when it came time to cash in. As long as prices held or, better yet, increased, all was good in the American house. Then real estate prices fell, the excruciatingly complicated securities market underpinning the mortgage industry crashed, and the overvalued house became part of the stew known as “toxic assets.”
So is there a better way to redefine and reclaim value? From my perspective, true value should be derived from a building’s financial value as well as its usefulness and beauty. I believe a notion of value that includes both measurements would transcend boom-and-bust cycles, and could be reclaimed by a return to responsible and thoughtful design. Small houses occupy a unique space in this equation because they have inherent worth in both realms. More than 2,000 years ago, the Roman architect Vitruvius said every good piece of architecture must have firmness,
Left: Large windows bring extra light and a sense of openness into smaller homes. Right: A 1,400-square-foot house in Islesboro, Maine features whitewashed exposed interior framing that adds another level of visual interest.
commodity, and delight. Houses will have firmness if they are built well, commodity if they fit the way we live, and delight if they bring visual pleasure. Many of the large houses built during the boom years lack those attributes. I would even argue that the loss of value they experienced was as much a result of their poor design as it was an over-inflated real estate market. I’m not arguing that all large houses are poorly designed or inherently bad, but rather that a smaller, well designed house has a much better likelihood of offering true financial and psychological value to their homeowners. Small houses will have better financial value because one is likely to use one’s construction budget more wisely on a smaller house. Instead of spreading the money around to fill out a large volume, you will probably concentrate your costs on better quality and unique items in the house (such as built-ins, stairs, or fireplaces). Think about it this way: If you have fixed budget, would you
get a better house if it was 4000 square feet or if it were 2000 square feet? Obviously, the 2000 square foot house would be less expensive to build in the first place, but thinking smaller helps focus your interests and will result in better quality. Better built houses are more likely to hold their financial value longer riding out boom and bust cycles. Small houses will also have better psychological value because it’s natural to feel better living in a house of good quality that has been thoughtfully considered in all its aspects; site, plan, exteriors, and details. These attributes are day-to-day direct experiences in a small house. Who hasn’t experienced the quality of a better car, a better chair or, in today’s world, a better mobile phone? The iPhone is so magnificent not just because of its usefulness but because it’s designed and built well too. It gives us real pleasure because it is all of these things, and I would argue a well-designed and well-built small house also provides the same psychological pleasure. Small houses are not necessarily for everyone, but I would suggest that in this world of decreasing resources, they can offer an opportunity to redefine the true meaning of value in our homes. True value not just defined financially, but also as Vitruvius did: in firmness, commodity, and delight. ✪
DEEP ENERGY RETROFITS
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profile /Energy Star Some of the biggest leaps toward the future of power are being taken right in our backyard, at one of the world’s biggest cleantech incubators.
By Alexandra Hall
Suddenly they were off and running, and set up shop in a rundown building in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. The space was part of an immense building that took up nearly an entire city block. “MIT is a pretty tight community and word quickly got around that some guys a few blocks off campus had found a cheap lease with access to office and prototyping space,” Hanna explains. “Within a month we had several companies join us; they also happened to be working on innovations in energy. It turned out to be the perfect environment for early-stage companies in cleantech—lots of smart people, cheap rent, and everyone working to improve the way we produce or consume energy.” It wasn’t long before they were all sharing tools, talking about best practices, reviewing one another’s pitches, collaborating on grant applications, and even sharing employees.
From the outside, the 34,000-square-foot, brick and cement building just outside of Union Square in Somerville looks like any other. But once inside, it becomes very clear that something fairly unusual is going on. Greentown Labs, one of the biggest cleantech incubators in the world, is called home by more than 40 companies—all of which are trying to change the world with hardware, energy, and sustainability innovations. Co-founded and built by Jason Hanna, a former EMC engineer and CEO and founder of Embue, a Boston-based company that builds advanced HVAC controls, the building has been a long time in the making. “I was intrigued by the idea of building something with an altruistic element, and after leaving EMC, I set to work on how I might apply my skills to solve challenges in energy.” His first big break came in 2009, when he published a web application to help people understand where utilities were deploying advanced metering technologies. That led to a consulting job in which he helped a group of Connecticut utilities secure funding from the U.S. Department of Energy for an $18.2 million smart grid deployment project. “That opened my eyes to the possibility of non-traditional funding sources,” he says. He jumped on a Department of Energy announcement in mid-2009, and to date has won several grants leading to over $1.5 million in funding.
In early 2011, they were told the building would be demolished and replaced with a new life sciences laboratory. “We loved the collaborative environment we’d built, and decided to see if we could find a facility that could accommodate all our companies, with room for company growth and space for a few more startups,” he says. They landed on Summer Street in the Fort Point area of South Boston. It wasn’t fancy, but the price, location, and combination of office and shop space were all unbeatable. They named it Greentown Labs, and by the time they moved in in May of 2011, they’d already lined up seven companies to set up shop there. By the following summer of 2012, that had blossomed to nearly fifteen. Then in 2013, they financed a $1.2 million space in Somerville (which they built out in no less than four months) that has become not only their current home, but also houses over 40 like-minded companies. All the while, Hanna has never stopped his tireless efforts to build his own company, Embue. After winning multiple awards for their cutting edge, energy efficient heating and cooling control products, the company is now launching a Kickstarter campaign to fund production manufacturing(check it out at embue. com). Which means Hanna is now poised to take the next step in his mission to innovate energy. “A number of very promising companies have launched in this way and we’re hoping to follow in their footsteps,” he says. “I’m hopeful the next chapter will be an exciting one.”
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