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A Solar House Designed for Boomer Empty-Nesters

Prototype includes energy efficiency and age-friendly features

Northwestern Solar House

Adrian Smith/Gordon Gill Architecture

The technology also includes self-cleaning windows and walls treated to break down indoor pollution.

This could be the future of downsizing.

A team of Northwestern University students has built a prototype energy-efficient solar home that is designed for boomer empty nesters who want to age in place in a sustainable way.


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The university's compact Enable home is one of the entries in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon design competition in Denver in early October. The two-bedroom, 1,000-square-foot dwelling uses rooftop solar panels to produce enough electricity to power the house and charge a high-efficiency heat and air-conditioning system and an electric car in the garage. The technology also includes self-cleaning windows and walls treated to break down indoor pollution.

The design team spent more than a year talking with and observing boomers in the community to get a firsthand sense of what features might appeal to them, said Maggie Waldron, director of program operations for the House by Northwestern team.

As a result, the single-story house offers features that include doorways without thresholds, walkways throughout that are accessible to those with disabilities, and levers instead of doorknobs.  There’s also a smart-lighting system that automatically illuminates pathways to the bathroom when a resident gets out of bed. The kitchen countertops are made from the same durable glass as smartphone screens and require little upkeep.

The prototype would cost $385,000 to build. If the idea catches on commercially, Waldron said, economies of scale would bring down the price.

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