But the draw was the home’s innards, not its silhouette: equipped with state-of-the art energy-efficient technology, the good-looking structure is Russia’s first “active house.”
On a recent Saturday, a bus filled with local architects arrived at a field 12 miles southwest of Moscow. As a light snow began to fall, they made their way past a handful of model homes to a wooden A-frame whose spare, modern lines could be straight out of Dwell magazine.
With thermal solar panels, a geothermal-powered heat pump and a slick touch-screen system in the living room that automatically raises and lowers window shades depending on the carbon dioxide levels in the interior, the Moscow active house is one of a small vanguard of green residential buildings popping up in the country.
The Moscow house project was initiated by the Velux Group, a Danish company that makes roof windows and solar panels and jointly founded an active house alliance last year. The idea is to develop energy-efficient building designs, with a special emphasis on factors like daylight and fresh air, by experimenting with real-life situations.
So far nine houses in Western Europe have been built according to active-house principles, which include the idea that buildings should be able to produce more energy than they use. To test how efficient and how livable these places are, a family lives in each of the houses for up to a year.
In resource-rich Russia, where enough energy is wasted each year to power all of France, according to the World Bank, there has historically been little interest in energy efficiency. That could be changing as a result of a 2008 decree by President Dmitri A. Medvedev that Russia must cut its energy usage by 40 percent by the year 2020.
When Velux contacted a Moscow-area developer, Zagorodny Proekt, about building an active house around a year and a half ago, both parties were in uncharted territory.
Dmitri Aksenov, Zagorodny Proekt’s chief operating officer, decided to proceed, constructing the building as part of a European-style development of small, relatively affordable single-family homes outside the city. “People are always saying there’s no quality of life in Russia, and everyone wants to emigrate,” he said. “We’re bringing Europe to Russia.”
Green living is not an exigency in Russia because the price of natural gas is so low, Mr. Aksenov said.. “But it’s a social trend,” he said. “We have interest from people who travel, people who are educated, people who have lived abroad. People who are really serious about nature are prepared to spend some money on being cool, being green.”
The house, which cost Zagorodny Proekt about $1 million to build, embraces technologies that are relatively rare in Russia but common in Western Europe, where, thanks to government incentives, solar panels and geothermal heating systems are common.
“Nobody has tested these solar roof panels in Russia,” said the architect, Alexander Leonov, who borrowed from the classical Russian wooden house for his design. “Seventy percent of the year, it’s the cold season, but in the summer it reaches 40 degrees” Centigrade (104 degrees Fahrenheit). “Will the panels hold up?”
There were challenges. “The engineering systems are very sophisticated, and no engineering company in Russia is familiar with these types of systems,” Mr. Aksenov said. The developers ended up bringing in engineers from Denmark and trained a local team.
The house will be “tested” by a Russian family but be open for tours by engineers, government officials, potential customers and others. “It’s a design platform — something we can show,” Mr. Aksenov. said. “Politically, there’s been a lot of talk about energy efficiency in Russia, but there’s not much you can touch and see.”
Remir Mukumov, who worked as a consultant on a government project to build 10 energy- efficient residential complexes in various regions throughout Russia, said the house was too expensive for wide-scale construction. Others pointed out that the location is hardly an environmental plus: to reach Moscow, residents would almost certainly have to use their cars.
“One active house is like one pro-active person,” said Mikhail Vorontsov, a member of a new council created by Moscow’s regional parliament to smooth the way for environmentally friendly projects, among other goals. “He cannot change everything, but he can give an impulse for change in the future.”
Still, the house’s completion “is an event,” said Guy Eames of the Russian Green Building Council.
The Russian active house was built in six months, twice as fast as its Western European counterparts. Mr. Aksenov attributes this partly to enthusiasm about the project’s novelty. “Everyone got really excited about it, including our subcontractors,” he said.
While the next step is figuring out how to replicate the house at a lower cost, one place the developer won’t cut corners is aesthetics.Mr. Aksenov, who didn’t want to take any chances the first time around, hired his own interior decorator to design the spare white interior.
“We spent quite a long time in the Soviet era, where functionality was the issue and aesthetics were out of the question,” he said. “It can be green, but it has to be nice-looking as well.
Original Story by NYT
‘Active House’ Upends Russian Energy Habits