High-Performance Home Laboratory

High-Performance Home Laboratory

More than just a comfortable home, this platinum-certified dwelling in Massachusetts will put Rheem products to the test.

There’s no denying Alan Machuga’s custom home is spacious, energy efficient and thoughtfully designed. But what the casual visitor may not realize is that the house, designed by A3 Architects and built by Philbrook Construction Services Group, Inc., has many layers of building science in its back story. In coming years, it will act as a real-world laboratory. That’s not accidental.

Thoughtful Beauty

The Machuga house outperforms most others of its size and class, thanks to careful detailing, optimized HVAC, and smart energy management. Credit: Cutrona-DSCF

Machuga says his decision to build a new home fell into perfect synergy with his position as chief technology officer and executive vice president of Rheem Manufacturing. Rheem is a well-established and respected brand, producing a wide range of heating, cooling, water heating, pool and spa heating, and commercial refrigeration products. Machuga’s home is right on track with where he wants to take the company.

“I was thinking about the context of my new role, about what’s happening in the market,” he explains. “New home building standards are being introduced, and our products are becoming more enabled to integrate with smart grids and apps.” Also coming on fast, he adds, are electrification and “greening” of buildings. “There’s a big push toward all things green,” he says, “from solar panels to heat pumps to electric vehicles.”

Given this growing awareness, Machuga and his wife decided to make the construction of their home into a testing ground—a place to apply and monitor green products and principles.

And of course, Rheem’s portfolio of products would play its part.

Ordinary Secrets

Although the structure is built with conventional materials, air sealing and insulation were meticulous, resulting in an extremely tight shell and “baseline” for performance. Courtesy Pearl Certification

“The idea would be that I could take Rheem’s products with me on that journey,” Machuga says. “It would culminate in a home, but also in a lab where we could test different things in the future.”

In other words, the house may not be “one and done,” but rather a work in progress, he explains. It will be a place where products can be exchanged or updated in the future, and monitored for real time performance data.

Temperature controlled

To take full advantage of Rheem’s heat pump technology, Machuga’s house has multiple units installed, along with high-efficiency gas furnaces for deep winter. Credit: Alan Machuga

A Pearl Partnership

To raise the bar on the home’s construction, Machuga partnered with Pearl Certification, a company that takes a multi-pathway approach to ensuring that a building’s systems work together to optimize energy efficiency. Pearl Certification also offers a consumer-facing Green Door app, which guides homeowners through steps to higher performance.

Another tool in Pearl’s chest is “badges,” which act as a seal of approval for a specific aspect of the home. For instance, Pearl might award a Solar Badge, or an Electrified Home Badge, for “above and beyond” performance in those categories.

Casey Murphy, a senior vice president with Pearl, worked closely with Machuga on this home.

“When I first learned about the project, I was just trying to figure out, okay, what are they trying to accomplish?” Murphy recalls. “I figured it would have a lot of Rheem products, but I also figured that they would probably want to achieve our highest level, which is Pearl Platinum.”

Murphy says the Machuga project took advantage of Pearl’s expertise as an advisor on product selections and as a liaison to appraisers, helping them understand the probable return on investment (ROI) of products and systems.

“We fill out the appraisal institutes’ forms and energy-efficiency addendum for every home,” Machuga explains, “so that the appraiser can then take the home’s high-performing features into consideration when forming their opinion of value.”

As a result, he explains, appraisers can provide “a sort of a side-by-side comparison with a more typical conventional home, such as what the difference in performance would be. There’s an art and a science to how appraisers take these things into consideration.”


Clerestory windows illuminate the main living room, with its modern open floorplan, high ceilings and walls of solar-oriented glass. Credit: Cutrona-DSCF



The Rheem Connection

Machuga refers to his focus at Rheem as “digitization.” The key, he says, is crossing the divide between mechanical and digital tools. As he discovered while planning this project, that often means taking a hybrid, as opposed to a singular approach.

Case in point: Machuga’s house takes full advantage of heat pump technology, with three units installed, but also has three high-efficiency gas furnaces for deep winter. This might sound like HVAC overkill but, don’t forget, Machuga is using the home as a hands-on laboratory. Some of what he’ll be testing is how these different heating methods perform in the coldest part of the year. Can the cold-climate electric heat pumps handle the home’s demand? How much assistance can they provide to the gas furnaces?

“We’ve actually added plumbing and electrical infrastructure to the house that will allow us to test both gas and electric products,” Machuga notes. “As we introduce new products to the market, I’ll be able to give them a field test and swap out products. I really want the house to serve as a field lab.”

At the same time, Machuga will measure and monitor the home’s indoor air quality, to learn how it’s affected by different products and lifestyle choices.

Tight and Bright

With spray foam in the walls and ceiling and high-performance Andersen windows and doors, the home stays comfortable during cold Massachusetts evenings. Credit: Cutrona-DSCF

“As we’re thinking through our control strategy and our systems’ digitization, we’ll continue to connect the products, to evaluate the performance of the whole system—especially when it comes to indoor air quality,” he says. “A lot of folks are targeting indoor air quality in commercial buildings, but residential buildings are still susceptible to the same kind of indoor conditions.”

Evolving Level of Smart Control

If you’ve installed one of Rheem’s popular ProTerra hybrid heat pump water heaters, you may be familiar with the EcoNet app. Machuga says the scope and power of that app is expanding to manage all Rheem products.

“EcoNet works right out of the box, but there’s a set of additional features we’re considering,” he says. “Right now, I can look at all the Rheem systems in the house, and that allows me to think through how they communicate with each other.”

He explains how the “smart” aspects of those controls might be enhanced. For example, water heaters may need to self-adjust to different levels of hot water storage depending on the family’s activities.

Cooking may cause a spike in air pollution that requires higher diffusion from ERVs. Reduced airflow sensed in a furnace might mean filters need replacement, or ducts need to be cleaned.

Living in the house already has him thinking about other ways smart sensing and control might be used.

“For example, I’ve got a smart [electrical] panel in the house,” Machuga explains. “This makes it easy to do some calculations about the energy usage for each product. But maybe we can make it even easier, where I don’t need to read them off the panel—feedback is sent [to the app] for a comprehensive view of my energy consumption in the house.” 

Front Spacing

The spacious home fits in with the New England traditional aesthetic, yet has high-tech systems throughout, and above-and-beyond insulation and air sealing. Credit: Cutrona-DSCF

A Well-Built House as Baseline

Although Machuga’s focus now is on smart products and controls, the home’s construction details form the backbone of its future role as a laboratory. With a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index rating of minus 2, its spray foam, leak sealing, proper duct design, daylighting and other choices make the home efficient enough to respond to small tweaks from any of the HVAC systems.

Murphy at Pearl points out that projects such as this Platinum-certified house can shift the way homeowners think about energy efficiency. Too often, he says, high performance homes are not valued properly by appraisers or realtors. They underestimate how important this aspect is to long-term maintenance and resale value.

“People spend $600 billion every year on home improvements,” Murphy says. “The vast majority of that is not spent because of tax credits or rebates. They know if they remodel the kitchen, they’re improving the value of the investment. But when it comes to energy efficiency, that’s completely ignored. We want to change that. We want that ‘hidden’ value made visible at the time of sale.”

To that end, certification is one key tool, as part of a conversation that revolves around resilience and durability, Murphy adds.


The Rheem RETST700SYS EcoNet Smart Thermostat works with Rheem products in the home as an alternative to the smartphone app. Courtesy Rheem Manufacturing

“With this [Machuga] house, for example, you’ve got a bunch of interconnected products tied to the Rheem EcoNet app, so ultimately you have a home that is more resilient, more responsive to the grid,” he explains. “It can participate with the smart grid on the demand side.”

And, when you consider the solar array, “the house can actually monetize that connectivity,” Murphy adds. “It could act as a battery and be a good citizen of the grid.”

As for how Pearl and Machuga pushed the house to Platinum heights, Murphy says part of the credit goes to the people on the ground, and ongoing conversations. “They made sure they had the right contractors and pros on the job,” he recalls. “That’s essential. But also, when you’re working with a manufacturer, you know it has certain opinions about other companies. But that manufacturer still needs products to complete the house. So, it becomes a discussion of fiberglass insulation versus cellulose versus spray foam.”

Pearl can work with whatever products a builder or homeowner prefers, according to Murphy. “The group sometimes urges them to spend a little more to raise the bar,” he notes. “Ultimately, it’s the whole design that will make or break the home’s performance. In the case of this home, the proof is in the final certification numbers.” 


Machuga’s house achieved Platinum certification, as shown in this Pearl analysis, with a big boost in the baseload category. What that means is that the home’s overall energy demands were much lower than comparable structures. Source: Pearl Certification

Another Angle REVISED

This chart compares the home’s performance across all sizes. Despite it being more than 4,000 square feet, the Machuga home uses less energy annually than much smaller buildings. Source: Pearl Certification

Near Net Zero REVISED