One would expect that months of a pandemic-driven news cycle would cause at least some shifts in home buyer priorities. Indeed it has. Joel Abney, VP of Operations at Woodside Homes, the nation's 28th largest production builder, says that the company's buyer surveys have reflected a measurable rise in concern about health and wellness.
"A few months ago, most people just assumed their new home would be healthy," he says. "Then the Coronavirus hit." Now, buyers want proof that it will be healthy, and are asking for systems to ensure that outcome. Their worries aren't limited to viruses, either. "The specific concerns we hear most often are about allergens and mold," says Abney.
These concerns aren't new: the virus merely added fuel to an already accelerating demand for healthy homes. An August 2019 Farnsworth Group survey of 40-55 year old homebuyers found that 59 percent placed a high priority on "Health & Well-Being," a priority Woodside had already made a centerpiece of its Chowa Concept Home in Las Vegas, which they designed and built in partnership with parent company Sekisui House and with media support from BUILDER magazine.
If you've read any of the the numerous articles about the house you know that 'chowa' is a Japanese term that loosely translates to "life balance," and that the home includes architecture and systems to support a healthy lifestyle. Much has been written about the architecture and engineering that went into the home, so we won't go into them here. Instead, we'll take a closer look at how the home addresses indoor air quality concerns, to see what EEBA builders could learn from it.
Health as a System
Of course, the bar for creating a home that's healthier than most isn't particularly high. "Most builders' approach to improving indoor air quality doesn't go much beyond putting better filters on the HVAC system," says Abney. An extra piece of equipment—even something as simple and low tech as a fresh-air supply fan—can elevate a builder above the fray in some markets.
But while good equipment is important, Abney insists that it needs to be chosen and configured holistically. That's because, in two important respects, indoor quality is no different than energy conservation, comfort and long-term durability. The first is that you can only optimize it within the house-as-a-system approach that most high-performance builders already subscribe to. The second is that you have to make it non-negotiable.
If you tack solar panels or a dehumidifier onto an otherwise conventional home many customers will object to the cost, but those same people will embrace features meant to save energy and improve health if those features are part of the standard home package. "As a builder, your message needs to be that you designed the home as a system to support a lifestyle that includes energy savings and a healthy environment," says Abney. "Your messaging should make it clear that those are things customers should expect."
The Chowa Concept Home includes features you would expect in a high-performance custom home. They include nontoxic paint, VOC absorbing drywall and a high-efficiency Daikin heat pump. Fresh air ventilation includes a Panasonic ERV, range hood and bath fans as well as an Aprilaire air purifier. The home earned certifications from the DOE's Zero Energy Ready Home program as well as from LEED, NGBS, ENERGY STAR, WaterSense and Indoor airPLUS.
What's different with Chowa is that it relies on sensors and electronic controls to truly integrate and coordinate the mechanical equipment in ways that haven't been done before. These controls also give homeowners an active role in managing their home's air quality.
In fact, Chowa was the first in-home public demonstration of Panasonic's Cosmos air quality monitoring system. Cosmos uses Foobot air quality sensors placed around the house to constantly monitor contaminants such as VOCs, particulates and carbon dioxide. The sensors send this data to a wireless router which in turn controls the ventilation equipment.
If there's a bad air event, whether elevated CO2 from a large dinner gathering or smoke from a burned meal, Cosmos will switch on the appropriate ventilation fan and, if necessary, the heat pump. Makeup air will be cleaned by the Aprilaire unit. (The Ultimate Z.E.N. model home, which will be open for tours this fall in conjunction with the EEBA High Performance Home Virtual Summit, will also feature the Cosmos system.
An Interactive Experience
While sensor-driven ventilation is the real differentiator, Woodside also wanted homeowners to see the air being purified. That would raise the perceived value of the equipment.
At this point, Cosmos doesn't give homeowners a lot of detail on the types of contaminants in the home's air. To get that detail, Woodside decided to use the DARWIN air monitoring system from Delos, which has an app that shows actual levels of specific contaminants, as well as temperature and humidity. "You can pull up the floor plan and can see the air quality in each room," says Abney.
The only place the Delos equipment performs a control function is in the Master bedroom, where it runs an air purifier as well as a Circadian Lighting System. The latter simulates the rhythms of natural lighting, with the aim of supporting restful sleep cycle.
Woodside was curious whether all this feedback and control would lead homeowners to place an even higher priority on good indoor air quality. What they've heard so far makes that seem so.
Besides opening the home to a steady stream of tour groups during all three days of IBS, Woodside also hosted a couple of consumer focus groups. Abney finds that consumers in general respond best to air quality messages that mention specific contaminants, and that was confirmed by the Chowa groups. "They really liked the visualizations," he says. "When they could see specifics like how our equipment removed viruses, allergens and mold, their interest really picked up."
Visualization also offers value to homeowners after the sale. For instance, if they buy a new living room set two years after move-in, they can see if it is off-gassing and can adjust their ventilation rates accordingly. "We wanted to put tools in consumers' hands to help them monitor IAQ in the future," he says.
While the Cosmos system works seamlessly with the Panasonic equipment, getting it to control the heat pump required custom computer code. This work would be impractical for all but the priciest homes today, but the role of a concept home is to show what's possible. Abney believes that once customers understand the value of this integration and start asking for it, manufacturers will collaborate to make it happen cost-effectively.
Meanwhile, Woodside will look for ways to apply the lessons learned in the Chowa Concept Home company-wide and will probably start with Cosmos or something like it. "We eventually want to get sensor technology into every house we build," says Abney.