Go green!

Several weeks ago, I got to visit the "Smart Home" exhibit at the Chicago Museum of Science Industry ...

Almost from the moment you step inside and get a whiff of the natural light pouring through the windows, or get a feel of the suave furniture made of recycled material, the manufactured home standing tall in the museum's courtyard is an inspiration to go green.

Though some of that shine wears off when you learn the home’s $450,000 price tag — which doesn’t include the structure’s “brain” control center or some of its other material wonders — the exhibit succeeds at teaching visitors about the ways people can save on energy and cut waste. It also is a worthy glimpse of so-called “smart design” and what could lie ahead in building construction.

The structure, which opened in May, is a three-story, 2,500 square-foot modular and sustainable “green” home that could sit on any Chicago lot. It’s built with Midwest climate in mind, as well as eco-friendly materials and plenty of 21st century contraptions.

In a pre-tour video, the exhibit lays claim to the importance of the construction process. The home was build as five separate modules in a controlled environment, before being shipped and attached to its foundation in the museum’s courtyard. By building the home in a controlled environment, workers employed precision cutting, making the home 50 to 75 percent stronger and leaving less waste.

The tour experience begins as we enter the home from the deck — made from a material comprised of sawdust and recycled plastics — and we trigger the home’s automation system. The window shades retract and the lights turn on.

Then, surrounding the living room, is the NanaWall, a glass wall that can be folded away to extend the living room into the home’s open air-porch. The window is made of double-pane glass to save energy and keep the home warm during those cold midwestern winters. But open it during the summer and you get a cool flow of air that circulates through the entire home and acts as natural air-conditioning.

“This is the first example I can show you of smart design,” says our tour guide Jason Hodge, who’s dressed in a lab coat and exudes an energy level reminiscent of a guide you might encounter at Disney’s Epcot Center. “The idea here is that we design the house big as opposed to build it big. We don’t have to waste a whole bunch of materials on a screened porch or something like that, or waste a whole bunch of wood when we can just open up one of our walls and extend our living space on to the porch.”

The living room furniture includes chairs upholstered completely with recycled polyester and a sofa throw made of bamboo, polyester and cotton. One couch was upholstered entirely of recycled T-shirts. Another was purchased at a thrift store and buffed up.

Separating the living room from the kitchen and dining area is the Ecosmart Vision fireplace. It has no chimney and its wheeled frame allows you to roll it to another room. Also, while it burns the renewable resource ethanol, its heat can protract up to 375 feet.

“We don’t need to burn any wood or coal or anything that’s going to make a whole bunch of harmful smoke coming out into your room,” Hodge says. “It’s a very clean burn so basically the only waste products are going to be water and carbon dioxide. It keeps all of our heat from this fireplace right here in the house.”

As we pass into the dining area and kitchen, it’s hard not to gaze upward. The middle portion of the home is completely open, allowing visitors to look up through a bright, spacious pathway to the third floor loft. The design is another way to control the home’s temperature naturally, Hodge explains.

Yet, perhaps one of the home’s most remarkable illustrations of how much energy we still waste hangs a few steps into the dining room. There, a globe-shaped chandelier contains one energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulb that’s surrounded by dozens of blown-out incandescent bulbs representing the number of light bulbs a resident could use during the 20- to 25-year lifespan of an energy-saving compact florescent.

The kitchen features a countertop made of bamboo and recycled wood from demolition sites, all sealed and bound together with a water-based resin formula.

It’s “basically a big stack of paper,” Hodge explains. And the oak cabinets are made of wood purchased from the sustainable forests managed by Forest Stewardship Council.

Like the paint on the walls and all of the other materials used in the house, neither the countertop or the cabinets contain harmful volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. And the home’s designers and builders know exactly where their materials came from.

Then, adjacent to the kitchen, in what’s known as the utility room in our present-day homes, is the control room — another of the home’s marvels. Underneath the glass floor and the home’s foundation, a pair of rainwater barrels collect all of the rain water that pools on the roof and drains from the side of the house. That supply is then used to water the gardens and landscape surrounding the home.

Additionally, a tankless water heater in the control room can be turned on and off on-demand, making it 85 percent more efficient than your standard water heater. The room boasts an energy-efficient washer and dryer and an energy dashboard — a black box for the home that keeps track of your energy captured in the solar panels and other devices on the roof, as well your gas and water use. You can also compare your use to totals from the day before or even last month.

Upstairs, the bamboo is more prevalent. It’s in the floors, a blanket and the bath towels.

Bath and floor tiles are made of recycled glass, using chardonnay bottles to give a green tint. Sinks and countertops are made of recycled toilet and porcelain aggregate.

Meanwhile, a Kohler showerhead uses 30 percent less water “without sacrificing performance” and the toilet uses a button built on the No. 1 or No. 2 concept to control the gallons of water used in your flush. Believe it or not, the two-button actuator can save as much as 25,000 gallons more than a standard toilet.

“People think, ‘oh, wow, who thought of that?’ ” Hodge says. “And apparently everybody before the Americans because they’ve been in Europe forever, so we definitely need to catch up.”

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