Energy Efficient Modular Housing with Lisa Iulo

I’m really excited about today’s show. We’re going to explore modular homes and the importance of energy efficiency in making affordable housing affordable. My guest is Lisa Iulo, an Associate Professor of Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University.

The homes were solar powered and self-sufficient and everyone got around, of course, in hovering vehicles and things like that. So I guess childhood visions catch up to you at some point in your reality whether it’s intentional or not I guess. ~Lisa Iulo

Lisa Iulo, Associate Professor of Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University

Lisa Iulo Assoc Professor of Architecture Penn State

Lisa Iulo, Associate Professor of Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University

My guest today is Lisa Iulo, an Associate Professor of Architecture at the Pennsylvania State University. She focuses on building a more sustainable future through residential green building practices, affordable housing, energy efficiency and incorporating renewable energy into buildings and communities. She was also heavily involved in Penn State’s 2007 and 2009 Solar Decathlon projects.

LI: Lisa Iulo. I’m an associate professor of architecture and I also have a courtesy appointment in architectural engineering.

DB: Okay. You gave a presentation yesterday about developing a system for delivering modular homes. So tell us a little bit about what’s involved in that. That seems, like delivering a home, a constructed home is a pretty big project.

LI: Well, yes it is and in fact the way that we look at it is perhaps even a bigger project because what we’re less interested in is the end result of the home or as you put it actually delivering the home and putting it on the site, but the process to get to a responsible design for a home that we know is going to be contextually appropriate in the existing fabric of a community, that’s going to enhance that community. And is also going to enhance the quality of life for the person that’s going to be living there. And so what we’re really interested in is how we can look at bringing down the cost of designing a really well-designed, well-insulated, high-performance if you will home that is ultimately going to bring down the expenses that a homeowner living in that home is going to pay over time to afford their utilities and things like that. So to that end we’re really thinking overall about the design process. How we can make sure, a) that designers are involved, that responsible choices are being made in the way that those homes are designed but facilitating a collaborative process that can allow better decisions to be made. One of the difficulties, especially with all projects, and I think you’ve seen some presentations that talk about this. With all projects but especially with housing, it’s very hard for projects to carry the soft costs that are associated with a very rigorous design process early on. So if we can help to disseminate information about just more responsible design choices, you know guiding people towards proper energy efficient wall systems and things like that. Then designers and project teams have perhaps the tools to be able to make better decisions and to design homes that can be site specific and meet those future needs and so that’s what with the kit of parts specifically what we were looking at was whether modular construction could be used to help to facilitate more energy efficient homes. And I think that there’s some research out there that says that this is possible because modular construction happens in a controlled environment. That there can be more oversight of the product. And making sure that things are sealed appropriately, insulated appropriately, that things that need to be done to make sure that energy efficiency is possible. And then by looking at what components technically are a part of that. They can be integrated into those modules so that the decisions and the oversight and some of the inspections happen in the plant, which is the way that modular construction works currently but now we’re focusing it much more towards paying attention to those aspects that are going to improve the long term efficiency and bring down the cost of energy over time.

DB: So, if you’re perfecting a design that’s then used for potentially thousands of homes, the cost of that design per home is tiny, right?

LI: That’s the goal, except where it becomes more complicated is that what we’re not trying to do is to put out there cookie cutter homes. You know this is not a Levittown type of kit.

Levittown refers to 4 large suburbs that were built by William Levitt for returning WWII vets and their families. They included thousands of nearly identical houses made in an assembly line manner.

LI: This is providing the tools and some of the components that can then be taken by a designer and applied to a specific site so that the way that those components come together, the specifics of the density, the specifics of the material choices, all of those are local decisions that are appropriate to a specific site and a specific economy.

DB: Yeah, but you’re having more control over the energy efficiency.

LI: And the systems that go in and how those systems are integrated, ultimately.

DB: To be a truly energy efficient home passive solar is a big part of that, so site orientation is really important. Is that a challenge when you’re looking at a pre-built, modular home?

LI: It is and again that’s where that reliance on local expertise comes into play to be able to optimize as much as possible. As you saw in the presentation we were also looking at what components, for example the entry cores and vertical circulation, how those might in different orientations so that if you have a home or a townhome for example that’s either not optimally oriented or like the townhome is very thin and narrow, to be able to orient those vertical cores so that you can capture more of the light so you can orient the roof so if you wanted to have active solar you could have that to allow more light and the potential for natural ventilation to penetrate the interior of that long narrow townhome type of configuration. So I think that there are some ways that passive solar strategies can be applied even when you’re not working optimally. It’s obviously more difficult but what we were exploring with that one project that you saw was “do some of these opportunities exist?”

DB: Can you describe briefly what you mean by the kit of parts?

IL: Sure, so the kit of parts is the nickname that we gave to this modular delivery system. And so it basically breaks down to a set of modules that work as per modular housing industry standards to some extent where we’re looking at how to more effectively use the way that walls and things are constructed in a manufacturing plant to make sure that they’re more energy efficient but for the most part they work within the constraints of the assembly line system and the transportation requirements. What we came up with was a system of modules that are either separate, you can get, for example, just a kitchen or an ADA bathroom or the two as a cluster so that if someone wanted to retrofit their home for example for aging in place that you could buy just those components and connect them to an existing home to bring up the kitchen and the bathroom to ADA standards.

Narrate: ADA is the Americans with Disabilities Act. So Lisa is talking about handicap accessible kitchen and bathroom modules.

Or those can work together to create a core for new construction, or they can be part of an assembly that would also have the living spaces around it. And so the kit of parts is basically a set of these components that can be additive. So you can use them separately or you can combine them to become full homes. And I showed in that presentation variations from, I didn’t go into some of the retrofit work that we have done but we have done some exploration of that but what I did show was everything from a very small apartment in a multi-family type of configuration to a standard four bedroom home, and all kinds of variations in between. And those were all based on an additive approach using the individual modules and bringing them together in different ways.

DB: So in America we probably have a pretty big inventory of pre-manufactured or mobile homes, which are some of the least efficient homes that are out there and the residents get into the home very cheaply and then they’re kind of saddled with really high energy costs. Do you see these modular kind of building block homes that are highly efficient as sort of a revolution of that mobile home industry? Do you think that that industry will go this way or is this a more niche type of market?

IL: It’s hard to say. I would like to see opportunity and in fact some of the local work and the places where we see opportunity in this is right in Center county where actually a number of manufactured housing parks have recently been closed and those people are struggling to find housing so we’ve been working with a couple of local providers of affordable housing, the State College Community Land Trust and the Center County Housing and Land Trust, to perhaps look at how modular construction or at least energy efficient housing can be used to fill that market and that is specifically what we’re interested in. I think what’s important to note is that there’s a big difference between the modular housing industry and the codes and the standards that they build to versus manufactured housing, which is a completely different set of codes and different set of issues. So I think that there’s some opportunity here but manufactured and modular are not interchangeable. It’s not the same thing.

DB: That’s unfortunate.

Modular Housing as Affordable Housing

IL: It is and it isn’t. I think it’s fortunate because I do see where modular housing can begin to fill that niche for affordable housing and I started out the presentation with the Union county housing authority duplex, where we used exactly that modular technology in order to provide affordable housing. What is unfortunate is that the association with manufactured housing often carries over to modular housing and people think they’re getting an inferior product. And that’s the unfortunate thing and that’s what we need to overcome is that stigma.

DB: What I meant was, I think it’s unfortunate that there are less stringent building codes for mobile homes because the very people that can’t really afford high energy bills are…

LI: They’re improving though. The standards and codes that apply to manufactured housing is improving but a lot of municipalities are no longer allowing manufactured housing to happen. The numbers that I’ve seen are that the manufactured housing industry is still growing but I don’t know where that’s happening. Cause you know it’s not really an area that I’m familiar enough with to talk about.

DB: Well Lisa, one last question. Can you tell me how you got interested in energy efficiency and renewable energy? Was it one particular event, maybe a trauma in your childhood or something?

LI: I can’t really put a finger on it. I think somehow my childhood came together with my adulthood. Actually when I was in the third grade, I remember, or perhaps I don’t remember this but I’ve been reminded of it often enough by my parents that it seems like a memory. I won an essay contest and the essay contest was it’s a hundred years from now and you just returned to Randolph, which was my home town and I apparently wrote about this vision of a future where all of the homes were solar powered and self-sufficient and everyone got around, of course, in hovering vehicles and things like that. So I guess childhood visions catch up to you at some point in your reality whether it’s intentional or not I guess.

DB: Your career path is set in elementary school at some point and you don’t even know it.

LI: I don’t know that that’s the case. More recently I think my professional work and the consulting work that I did came together nicely with the opportunities that I’ve had at Penn State to be involved with incredible people on the solar decathlon competitions and things like that. The two sort of culminated and grew into something else.

DB: Well thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

LI: Sure, Thank you. It was nice to meet you David.

DB: Yeah, you too Lisa.

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