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A Look at the Government's New Green Tech Test House

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In It's Not Easy Being Green, Curbed contributor Matt Hickman will pull back the curtain on cutting-edge, environmentally friendly design, from urban passive houses to green tweaks on suburban living. Have a suggestion for an upcoming column? Pass it along.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal agency perhaps best known for dutifully reminding us of the perils of parched Christmas trees and for being the nation's official timekeeper, has built itself a nice little house in the super-affluent county of Montgomery, Maryland: Four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a detached two-car garage, a screened-in lanai out back and 2,700 square feet of "upscale suburban" living space not including a 1,500-square-foot unfinished basement that's just dying to be transformed into a rec room. The primo Gaithersburg location is just a car-dependent hop, skip and jump from a Dogfish Head Alehouse, a commuter rail station, Costco and the local laser facilities. Holy convenience! The landscaping could also do for some work, however. "It is spacious, contemporary and livable. There are stainless steel appliances, hardwood floors, and the bedrooms are painted a soothing green. Stately columns convey 'comfortable suburban,'" gushes CNN in full-on brokerbabble mode. Chimes in U.S. News & World Report: The "newly built upscale home [is] complete with beautiful siding, exquisite architectural details, custom built-ins, and high-end finishes galore."

Before we're all worked up into a custom suburban home frenzy, here's the thing: as you may have surmised, this particular property isn't on the market – the median listing price in this D.C. area burg, one singled out by CNN Money as the 25th best place to live in the country, tops $500K–nor will it ever be (if it was, the cost to build this home would be in the ballpark of $600k, not including land).

? Dubbed the Net-Zero Energy Residential Test Facility (NZERTF, if you will), the home is the federal government's newest full-on laboratory with a distinct mission: to prove that high-efficiency homes–specifically ones that produce just as much or more energy as they consume–can blend perfectly into the homogeneous suburban landscape, too. In other words, you can shove an ungodly amount of insulation into the walls, top the roof with a 10.2kW photovoltaic array, install triple-pane windows and outfit a home with high-efficiency appliances along with all sorts of energy-saving of bells and whistles without sacrificing its cookie-cutter looks.

"We want to demonstrate that energy efficiency does not need to be at odds with a typical suburban neighborhood," explains NIST director Patrick Gallagher. Because, really, god forbid you stir things up by erecting an architecturally daring residential power plant boasting LEED Platinum certification.

? Still, you have to hand it to NIST for commandeering this $2.5M effort funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, because, after all, this humdrum suburban home of slightly above-average square footage (2,480 square feet was the norm for new homes in 2011) is the type that most Americans currently live in, or aspire to anyways. Urban shoeboxes and dense, transit-oriented developments are, of course, the ideal when it comes to low-impact modes of housing. But you'll find yourself holding your breath for quite the while in anticipation of a mass exodus to New Urbanist townhouse communities or snazzy/stifling high-end micro-apartments. Lipstick on a pig, perhaps, but this is how most of us live and will continue to live for the unforeseeable future.

Despite its home-cum-lab status, the NZERTF will soon be occupied by a not-living but breathing family of four dubbed "the Nisters." For a year, a small army of white coats camped out in the detached garage will monitor every movement–turning lights on and off, charging computers, taking showers, etc.–of the computer simulated clan and share the resulting energy consumption data with the public. Following the Nisters' 12-month stint, the home will be used as a testing ground for emerging energy-efficient technologies for an additional year.
A time-lapse video of the NZERTF under construction.

· Net-Zero Energy Residential Test Facility [NIST]
· Style and comfort – it must be an energy saving house [CNN]
· Net-Zero Energy Home Could Make Utility Bills a Thing of the Past [U.S. News & World Report]
· This House Consumes Less Net Energy Than Your Little Urban Studio [The Atlantic Cities]