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Family moves into first net zero Active House in the U.S.


March 22, 2013

A family recently moved into a prototype Active House, which uses natural lighting and ventilation to reduce its energy consumption while still blending in with the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood

A family recently moved into a prototype Active House, which uses natural lighting and ventilation to reduce its energy consumption while still blending in with the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood

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We've seen plenty of impressive net zero houses in the past, from the motion-controlled CHIP House in California to the budget-priced Sosoljip in South Korea. But one issue that seems predominant in most energy-neutral homes is that they typically take on a design that doesn't suit many suburban areas. That may soon change though with the first Active House, which uses natural lighting and ventilation to reduce its energy consumption while still blending in with the architecture of the surrounding neighborhood.

The Active House is a prototype home sponsored by VELUX, a Danish company that designs products to encourage the use of natural lighting, particularly skylights and windows. The project was created to promote buildings that have a positive impact on the environment while providing a healthy and comfortable indoor climate for occupants. A handful of other prototype Active Houses following these same standards have also been constructed all over Europe.

Project leaders chose Webster Grove, a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri, as the building site for it's first U.S. construction project because it's an area that receives all climate extremes, from ice-cold winters to sweltering hot summers. If the house proves to be energy efficient in this location, the theory goes, it should work just as well in any other location in the United States.

Natural lighting features heavily in the Active House, with windows, skylights, and sun tunnels scattered throughout every room. The interior design also features mostly light-colored surfaces, openly-connected rooms, and glass partitions to make sure whole house can be clearly lit on most days. Electricity and hot water are mostly provided by solar power as well, though a natural gas system does act as a backup when needed.

Maintaining a comfortable temperature also plays a large part in conserving energy, which is why the Active House's construction centers around natural ventilation and improved insulation. Windows that open are arranged in a straight path upwards, while the rest of the house is sealed airtight, maximizing the flow of fresh air inside. The outside walls also incorporate insulated panels and double-paned windows to reduce the amount of heat transfer, and the roof is covered in solar-reflective tiles to deflect sunlight and heat.

Best of all, most of the windows and blinds are rigged to an automated system to control the amount of heat, light, and fresh air that enters the home. Residents can even program them to open and close at certain times of the day, month, or even year, ensuring they're using natural energy as much as possible. The house does still have heating and air conditioning equipment as well – all rated for high energy efficiency of course – but the house's temperature-regulating construction should ensure they aren't used as much.

Finally, the majority of the building materials are recyclable, and some were repurposed from a previous structure on the same site. Altogether, the Active House simultaneously meets or exceeds the requirements for the ANSI-700 National Green Building Standard, Energy Star, Builder’s Challenge, and Indoor Air and Water Sense Programs, among others.

Even with all its sustainable technology and architecture, it was very important to the designers that the Active House blend in perfectly with the surrounding neighborhood. The aesthetics of many net zero homes are usually influenced by energy efficiency above all else, which may lead to some unique designs, but also means they have to be constructed outside of a typical residential area. By constructing a house that fits in almost seamlessly with local architecture, the project leaders hope more areas will open up to the idea of incorporating net zero practices in future housing projects.

For all it's green innovations though, what good is a house without someone living there? The Smith family – consisting of David, Thuy, and their daughter, Cameron – contacted the Active House project leaders when they decided to build a new home and worked closely with the designers on its layout. After almost a year of construction, they finally moved into their new home in late 2012 and will allow the University of Missouri’s Midwest Energy Efficiency Research Consortium to collect data on the house's energy usage during their first year there.

Source: Active House

About the Author
Jonathan Fincher Jonathan grew up in Norway, China, and Trinidad before graduating film school and becoming an online writer covering green technology, history and design, as well as contributing to video game news sites like Filefront and 1Up. He currently resides in Texas, where his passions include video games, comics, and boring people who don't want to talk about either of those things. All articles by Jonathan Fincher

I believe this is the architect for this project here in Missouri:


Tim McNabb

"Net zero"... does that include construction, or just operation? I mean, it's a step in the right direction, but if you still need tons of fossil fuels to build it I wouldn't call it "net zero".

Jaroslaw Filiochowski

Pretty sure its including construction, i could be wrong. If it was just operation you could just load any house with a ton of solar panels and a wind turbine.

That being said i'm not sure HOW they get to net zero but its probably explained elsewhere on the net. I think they recycle materials which is a way of offsetting the carbon that they do use or something like that.

Anyways interesting house, looks nice inside when its sunny, but im worried about when its overcast and at night time, as i did not see any light bulbs anywhere.


Why is it the reporter on stories like these never list the actual cost? I mean it's one thing to get the word that a net-zero home in traditional suburban style is one thing but how about a little price knowledge to pair with it.

Spike Elex

am i missing something; is there some benefit toward sustainability gained from having a miraculously "ugly" circa 1970's copy of a capeCoddish beach house "look" for your "zero Active House"?

Bruce Ward

I really like the look of this house. In fact, it looks so much nicer than most houses being put up these days. I want a house with 1 foot thick walls full of foam. I hate the way my old 1958 home seems to heat the outside because of the substandard insulation in 2x4 walls.


Where's the fridge? Perhaps the camera angles just don't show one.


I like the look of the natural lighting but like a lot of things I think there are some tradeoffs. Sometimes when the sun hits surfaces (like a TV) there is a glare and it can be hard to see. Even driven towards the sun in your car? That can be experienced in a house with a lot of windows as well.

The other point is that unnatural lighting technologies have come a long way recently between CFL and now LED. Depending on what area of the world you live in heating and cooling the house is probably much more expensive than lighting using modern technologies. Skylights are typically higher maintenance and cost than standard roofing and while it may have held true that they offered some cost savings in the past when incandescent lighting was the norm I'm skeptic that this is still the case.

The rooms with all the huge floor to ceiling windows are also sources of heat/cooling loss that party offset some of the work that the upgraded insulation is doing.

@Buellrider, is what kind of siding is on your 1958 home? They make better insulation these days but if you don't want to replace it you can put a layer of insulation/foam board down underneath new vinyl siding. It doesn't need to be a foot thick to be effective. Newer windows are a lot more efficient too. If you have older single pane windows still this is probably your bigger source of heat loss.


Spike, the construction price isn't listed because it isn't relevant to future units. The economies of scale will inevitably lower the cost of materials and labor of future units.

Noel Frothingham

That's not an electric car in the garage, and even if it was - there's no excess juice to charge it. "Net Zero" already exists, and it's hippies enjoying their countryside farms, not suit-wielding commuters.


Its a shame to say this is the first net zero house when Mike Strizki in Hopewell NJ has been operating his at net zero for years, turning 35kW of solar panels through an electrolyzer to separate O2 and H2 an altering all the natural gas using items in his house to use that instead. Just 35 kW provides him with all the transportation and household energy to live the modern lifestyle and he sells the power back to the grid as well. He's been going for years already.


Here you go. Enjoy!



It'll be very interesting to see the home's energy consumption after the first year. If it works, and if the technology can be used in homes with different exterior designs to match other residential communities across the country (heck, across the world), then great! Hopefully the costs will be reasonable - or at least, can be recouped via lower utility bills withn a reasonable timeframe (which I wonder about the Hopewell house). Regarding night-time interior lighting, I see table lamps, at least one wall sconce, under-cabinet kitchen counter lights, and several ceiling fixtures in pictures 3, 8-14, 21-22, and 24.

Suman Subramanian

Jonathan, You may want to do a bit of research prior to posting an advertisement for Velux windows.. There are currently plenty of net zero homes around that are being lived in. 4 in Portland Oregon alone. This is a house that appears to requires at least a 4 to 6 Kw-hr system for harvesting solar power, but the pictures show nothing close to that. Net zero means that it harvests annually as much energy as it uses, and the calculation needs to include the energy from the natural gas. Beautiful windows, lots of natural lighting, but I don't see evidence that this is anything close to net zero in operation. David


This was done for a window, skylight manufacturer to sell more.

While I agree with the premise of active and good windows and enough of them, bot only as much as needed as they are energy suckers if not done well in size and placement.

And anyone wanting skylights won't after living with them for 10 yrs, at least in places it rains.


What's the price per square foot?


Oh My!

It would fit in perfectly next door to my Grandfather's house built in 1911.

3 Generations and back to the plow!

How is it that this could be featured next to a marvelous reincarnation of the e Type or the beautiful Italian car or the luscious Danish Apartments.

Doesn't fit at all. Clearly not a member of the Society of Architectural Histoians because their precept is basically preserve the real past exactingly but build now in accordance with the advances in Architecture.

Island Architect

This is nice and neat and all, but.......residential and business construction needs to move into the modern era. Can you imagine building a car based on purely personal and ascetic choices the way we currently build houses and other buildings? Hiring a steel worker to lay out the frame and body, then hiring an electrician to wire it, then hiring an interior expert to put in the instruments, controls and seating, then hiring someone to put on the tires you've chosen. When construction of buildings becomes standardized, with "after-market" items added by the resident, then we can truly make the structures eco-friendly and efficient.


A big problem with natural ventilation is that many areas get little wind. particularly at the hottest part of the day. That leaves only convective flow due to upper floor heating and exhausting. A better idea is the solar chimney. Appearing from the outside as a fireplace chase, but with a window full height and located on the south or southwest side, as the sun heats it a strong updraft is created. Vents appropriately designed will then extract interior air and eject it from the top of the chase. Opening windows only in the area inhabited will maximize the flow, as with an attic fan but without the fan.

Jack Sprat

This house defies the maximum: Form Follows Function. It reverses it. If you enjoy a more energy efficient, less expensive, but comfortable house, why should you be concerned that it did not look like surrounding houses?

Windows are the biggest source of energy expense because they are mindlessly designed. Consider the usage. Windows are used for light about 99+%. The other two uses, viewing and air, are less than 1%. So why not design them with that in mind? For example, sealed, small slits (too small to allow ingress) placed high to avoid needing covers. The glazing should not allow heat (IF) or ultraviolet with double or triple pane. In extreme climates no windows would be best. Sunlight can be collected and transmitted inside to fixtures by fibers.

Don Duncan
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