The Environmental Journal of Southern Appalachia
Thursday, 07 April 2022 12:30

Keeping energy inside: Grant to install 3-D printed walls at Knoxville’s oldest public housing complex

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boys and girls club before and afterThis is a possible result of ORNL/KCDC energy efficiency improvements set for Knoxville public housing funded by a Department of Energy grant. The project will include the Boys & Girls Club.  © 2016 urban design association

Energy-efficiency upgrades based on ORNL walls set for Knoxville public housing

KNOXVILLE — A city public housing project almost a century old is going to receive 3-D printed energy efficiency upgrades thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory will partner with Knoxville’s Community Development Corporation to retrofit eight to 12 buildings at Western Heights using 3-D printed exterior “overclad” panels equipped with heat pumps and heat recovery systems. The Boys & Girls Club building at Five Points in Morningside will receive the same treatment.

The effort will be one of seven demonstration projects nationally funded by a $32 million Department of Energy grant. The renovation techniques reduce disruption to tenants, since residents won’t have to move out during installation, while also saving energy and costs. 

The $5 million local grant will cover ORNL manufacturing, installing and monitoring the energy-efficient panels and heating/air conditioning system. “KCDC has collaborated with ORNL for over a year to identify an opportunity to partner on an initiative focused on energy efficiency and environmental justice,” Ben Bentley, CEO of KCDC, said in an email.

The high-tech upgrades to the residential buildings in Western Heights are slated for completion in 2023, Bentley said. The new technology will be applied to eight to ten single-story duplexes (about 16 to 24 apartments) out of the 63 total buildings undergoing renovation during KCDC’s larger “Transforming Western” project. 

The interiors of the oldest buildings in the complex, which date to the 1930s, were already renovated in recent years. (Additional 1950’s-era Western Heights buildings are being replaced.)

The Five Points Boys & Girls Club retrofit will finish in 2024-25, Bentley said. 

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has set a goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

According to the Department of Energy, U.S. buildings use 40 percent of the nation’s energy and 75 percent of its electricity. Altogether, the building sector is responsible for 35 percent of American carbon emissions. The innovative technologies being tried in these projects are projected to cut thermal energy use in buildings by three-quarters. ORNL will monitor the actual energy savings at the KCDC buildings. 

Residents typically pay for utilities using an allowance that comes with their federal housing subsidy. The allowance will drop along with energy consumption, so individual residents won’t save money. But the reduced costs will provide KCDC with more cash flow and borrowing capacity at the complex, “which will directly improve the quality of housing units through reinvestment,” Bentley said.

This is not the first time KCDC has sought to improve the energy efficiency of its units. In 2006, it entered an energy performance contract with Ameresco that included energy-efficient plumbing, lighting, appliances, windows, HVAC, roofing and other measures installed at all KCDC properties. The $9.2 million cost led to $17.7 million in savings since 2008, Bentley said.

Bentley noted that historically, low-income communities have been disproportionately affected by environmental issues, and new technology is critical to improving problems like air quality.

“In many cases, affordable housing developments with limited budgets will be the last to be able to incorporate these new technologies,” Bentley said. “That’s one reason we’re so excited about the partnership with ORNL, as it will allow us to test a model that can potentially be replicated at other affordable housing properties across the country.”

Bentley noted that in some cases, energy efficiency can make the development of new affordable housing more financially viable.

Knoxville, like the rest of the nation, is facing an affordable housing shortage, which the city and its partners are scrambling to address. Almost half of city renters are considered cost-burdened because they pay more than 30 percent of their income for housing. The city has committed more than $16 million to an Affordable Housing Rental Development Fund to incentivize the construction of affordable rental housing. In September, Knoxville area agencies received a record high of 244 requests for assistance with rent and utilities.

Bentley said if the new ORNL technologies live up to their promise, KCDC might pursue using them more widely even after the grant ends. 

“If these technologies prove to create significant energy efficiency and can be acquired at an affordable price point, then yes, we would absolutely look to use this type of technology in the future,” he said.

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Last modified on Thursday, 13 October 2022 11:50