Feature: Reenergizing the Energy House

Volunteers help transform what was originally a septic tank into an aquaponic fish tank at the Energy House.

In the 1970s, long before sustainability became a modern buzzword, the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s School of Architecture built a model home where people could learn about sustainable living, local style.  The Energy House, located at the end of East-West Road on the Mānoa campus, included elements that would help reduce or minimize the need for energy use and promote an eco-friendly lifestyle.

Its sustainable features were decades ahead of their time. They included durable materials used to build the house, notably redwood; solar panels; a rainwater collection, filtering and pumping system; a septic tank to utilize grey water for irrigation; a wind turbine to generate electricity for an electric car; and an energy monitoring system.  The Energy House was not only a model of energy conservation and production, but also featured landscaping that consisted entirely of edible or usable plants.

More than three decades from their implementation, these features are now in need of updating with newer, energy-efficient technologies and sustainable systems that would signal a new era in sustainable building.  Mary Martini, psychologist and professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at UH Mānoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR), licensed carpenter James Estrella, and a team of dedicated volunteers have been spearheading efforts to restore and revitalize the old Energy House.  “I’d like to see it become a model house and urban garden highlighting the sustainable practices of today,” said Martini.

Since February 2010, Martini and her team have made significant progress at the Energy House.  Their work has included restoring 1) the natural conditioning of the inside air; 2) original, natural, building materials; 3) rain-water harvesting system; 4) pv solar electricity system; 5) sustainable gardens with help from staff and youth groups; and 6) the use of edible and useful plants as borders and wind diverters.

New features promoting sustainable food choices have also been introduced.  Working with CTAHR faculty, a sustainable urban garden featuring hydroponic and aquaponic systems was installed.  It includes a 500-gallon fish tank, an aquarium for rooting plants, and a fish nursery and two hydroponic grow tables for tomatoes and lettuce. Martini hopes to disseminate information to the public in the form of a sustainable lifestyle plan that includes instructions on how to install these features, plant and harvest gardens, and prepare meals using the garden produce.

Other programs introduced at the Energy House include a training curriculum in these emerging sustainable trade areas for various youth groups and a cooking program featuring child-friendly recipes using food found in the gardens.  “By developing and providing these training programs at the Energy House, we hope to help transition intermediate and high school students into CTAHR undergraduate programs in the future,” said Martini.

While there is still much to do for the Energy House to reach its full potential, progress has been made.  A new front porch, heat-reflective paint on the roof, sidewalk to the handicapped entry, and rainwater catchment and irrigation system, among other improvements, will be completed in the next few months.  Future plans include converting the garage to a workshop for youth and others to complete sustainable gardening and carpentry projects. 

“I want so much to work with others in sustainability,” said Martini. “We are just getting to meet those around campus and in the community who have similar interests.  With our efforts combined, it won’t be long before we are close to completion and getting the house where we would like it to be.”

For more information about the Energy House, contact Mary Martini at (808) 956-2249 or martini@hawaii.edu.

Top photo:  The newly renovated Energy House at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.