Imagine a newly-built apartment heated only with the excess energy produced by your television, your computer, even your own body. Now imagine that same apartment in Helsinki, Finland – one of Europe’s northern-most cities where winter climes can dip to -20C (5F). Sound impossible? Not at all. Finnish building contractors, Reponen Oy, are making it an everyday reality with their new low-energy building concept called MERA.
Reponen’s Jukka Kinnunen and Mika Airakselaa recently took Embassy Helsinki’s Economic staff on a tour of their latest MERA project – a new apartment complex that blends passive housing designs with Finnish craftsmanship to create ultra-low energy housing.
Here’s how MERA works – in simple terms. First, the apartment building is super insulated. The roof and walls have extra thick insulation to keep warmth in and the cold out. Next the windows are quadrupled paned – four layers of specially-designed glass that lets in light but effectively keeps out drafts. Then there are the pièces de résistance: a thermostat box located near the door and a small, understated air vent near the ceiling. Via the thermostat, you set the desired temperature for your apartment – say 20 degrees Celsius. Your appliances, your own body, even your dog produce heat that raises the apartment’s internal temperature. The air vent sucks up the internal air, runs it through a filter located in an adjacent hallway and then shoots it back out into the apartment in quantities sufficient to keep the internal temperature at your desired level.
Since Finland’s winter weather can be rather severe – and the amount of heat-generating appliances/people/dogs may vary from one apartment to the next – each apartment complex is equipped with back-up central heating for the coldest winter months. But according to Reponen, central heating is used only two months at the most throughout the entire year –an impressive feat considering Finland’s cold weather can stretch for eight months from September to April.
Equally impressive is that the MERA design is more energy efficient than Finnish passive housing standards. For the non-initiated, passive housing standards require that a house (or an apartment building in this case) have exceptionally low energy consumption – particularly for heating/cooling systems. How low to go varies vary widely from country to country.
In Finland, passive standards require that the amount of energy required to heat a home not exceed 30 KwH/m2 per year. By comparison a conventional apartment building uses an average of 70kWh/ m2 per year for heating. Reponen’s first MERA apartment complex, located in Heinola (2 hours from Helsinki) and occupied since May 2009, measures in at 15.6 KwH/m2 per year. That translates into a nearly 25% reduction in heating energy compared to conventional apartments.
But how comfortable are the apartments, really? After all, living in a cave with blankets might be energy-efficient but not entirely practical. Luckily, the apartments are aesthetically pleasing with all the modern conveniences one would expect from high-quality apartment living in Helsinki – lots of windows, enclosed balconies, electric ranges and even individual saunas. As for its winter warmth, we unfortunately could not judge the toasty-factor just yet. But similar designs in central (albeit warmer) Europe have proven quite effective.
MERA homes are also surprisingly affordable. Construction costs for Reponen’s MERA designs are only 1.7% higher than conventional buildings, keeping the price of a MERA low-energy apartment competitive with traditional housing. Clearly the Finns are hooked: the new MERA apartments are still under construction yet every unit is already sold.
In the US, passive housing is gaining traction. In 2003, architects Katrin Klingenberg and Nicolas Smith built America’s first passive home in Urbana, Illinois. The two-bedroom home’s annual heating demand averages only 11kWh. Klingenberg now co-directs the Passive Housing Institute US, a consulting and research firm working to further the implementation of Passive House standards and techniques nationwide. Many US top architectural schools, such as MIT and Yale, are also introducing green and passive building courses into their curriculums. Solar panels, green roofs and state-of-the-art energy efficiency are all steadily becoming the norm of the built environment – a small, but important step on the road to a greener, cleaner tomorrow.
Even our new US Ambassador to Finland Bruce Oreck has personal experience with US-based green housing. Ambassador Oreck and his wife Cody Oreck launched the Zero Carbon Initiative as a clearinghouse of information on green housing standards. They even used their own Colorado home as at a test lab, successfully turning it into a model of low-carbon living that sacrifices neither quality nor luxury.
Imagine fifteen years from now living in a low-carbon world where homes are fully energy efficient and actually make more energy than use. Sound impossible? Not any more.