Pushing the Envelope

Seal of the United States Department of Energy.

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After attending the Solar Decathlon 2011 in late September, I was left inspired and motivated by the sustainable architecture. The Solar Decathlon allowed visitors to tour 19 sustainable homes that were less than 1,000 square feet in size, designed by colleges and universities from around the world. The scale of the event was impressive, and it made me wonder how the competition began. To fully understand the purpose and scope of the Solar Decathlon, one must first discover how the Department of Energy began.

The United States Department of Energy was formed under the Carter administration in 1977 when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Research and Development Administration were unified. Through various internal departments, the organization pursues its mission as stated on the Department of Energy website:

“…to ensure America’s security and prosperity by addressing its energy, environmental and nuclear challenges through transformative science and technology solutions.”

While a large portion of the department’s responsibility lies in overseeing and managing nuclear energy and weapons programs, the focus on energy efficiency and renewable energy is where the Solar Decathlon got its start. Interestingly, the Department of Energy has allocated $280 million towards eight Energy Innovation Hubs. These multi-disciplinary hubs research innovative energy science and technology and develop concepts to a point where the market can support their manufacture and sale.

The Solar Decathlon was started in 2002 with 14 teams from around the United States. After the second iteration of the competition in 2005, the Solar Decathlon evolved into a biennial event in Washington, D.C.. The competition aims to educate the general public on available energy efficient construction techniques and appliances, and demonstrate how implementing such strategies can “create a more comfortable building, save energy, and reduce environmental impact”. The focus is on integrated holistic design that encourages interdisciplinary collaboration between students and prepares them for jobs in the energy sector. The Solar Decathlon awards an overall winner that  “best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency”, in addition to individual contest category winners.

Solar Decathlon 2011 - New York

Solar Decathlon 2011 – New York

While the overall goals of the Solar Decathlon are admirable, it seems there is an over-emphasis on typical ‘green technology’ and systems. The focus is often placed on the solar arrays (photo voltaic panels), solar hot water systems and extremely high R-values in walls and ceilings. While these technologies and passive construction methods are important to overall sustainability, the general public seems to get caught up in a series of metrics rather than understanding an over-arching theme. Visitors waiting in line to tour the competition designs constantly asked about the numbers: What R value does the wall have; how many kilowatts does the array generate, etc. While the answers to these questions can reveal underlying goals and construction techniques, I wonder how many of the countless bystanders actually grasped the meaning behind the numbers. I also wonder how many more visitors are missing out on the bigger picture because so much emphasis is placed on “solar panels” rather than a holistic lifestyle which is inherently sustainable. While the majority of the teams incorporated at least one innovative or unusual sustainable technology, the public’s awareness of these inclusions seemed minimal. I sensed a disconnect between the team’s presentation of innovative systems and the public’s awareness of how these technologies could be implemented in their own homes. How do we go from encouraging knowledge of sustainable technologies to enabling implementation of them?

Solar Decathlon 2011 - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Solar Decathlon 2011 – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

If the general public is to be educated, we need to educate them fully, not just with a smattering of expensive technologies that take decades to realize a return on investment. If the aim is to present a holistic design – a way of life, even – then we need to broaden the emphasis to include cutting edge technologies, tried-and-true traditional methods, and practical steps that individuals can apply. At the same time, there should be more than just collaboration between students of varying degree curriculum. If these students can work in tandem with the researchers of the Hubs, they can not only help advance cutting edge science and technology, but they can test it in a real-world laboratory and get face-to-face consumer feedback. There needs to be a broad reach with this competition that extends outside of just students interacting with other students and utilizing only products currently available on the market. While it is beneficial for consumers to familiarize themselves with products they can pick up at local hardware store, it is also beneficial to show them what products could exist in the future if given the right support. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign team did a great job at investigating how their design could be utilized as a rapid response to disasters. They realized that a typical FEMA shelter was insufficient, so they started a dialogue with insurance companies on how their design could be included as part of insurance pay outs. The Solar Decathlon should aim to encourage and enable students to interact with companies, product developers and researchers to raise the bar on how sustainability impacts our communities. Encouraging teams to go beyond a simple purchase of available products helps develop new technologies, systems, and methods that furthers the overall reach of sustainability.

Solar Decathlon - Middlebury College

Solar Decathlon – Middlebury College

At the same time, if the competition aims for true sustainability, it needs to downplay the ‘appendage approach’ to technology and encourage the development of true sustainability: regional design. Middlebury approached this idea by abiding by the very basics of sustainable design: using local materials and forms. Although this approach is a great starting point, it is limited in that the driving concept is static. The regional materials which inspired the first house design will inspire each subsequent iteration, resulting in very similar solutions. While it is essential to convey the basics of sustainability (which is innately regional), the driving force behind a design needs to originate outside of architecture.

Solar Decathlon 2011 - University of Maryland

Solar Decathlon 2011 – University of Maryland

While most teams were inspired and informed by existing architectural forms, The University of Maryland excelled in the competition by basing their design concept outside of architecture and available sustainable products. Each decision felt informed and intentional, contributing to a holistic, purposeful home. Maryland’s design is intended for a couple that works from home; a response to intense traffic congestion that is both practical and sustainable. In the same manner that Middlebury focused on regional materials to inform their sustainable choices, Maryland focused on solutions for a regional problem: the excess storm run-off which threatens the stability of their local ecosystem. Where Middlebury incorporated available products within a region, Maryland sought to sustain the region itself through their design. From the butterfly shed form, to the vegetated roof, to the constructed wetlands for filtering storm and gray water, to the interior desiccant dehumidifier system (developed by their 2007 Decathlon team with patent pending), the University of Maryland explored options outside of solar panels and R-values to contribute towards a truly sustainable lifestyle. This inclusion of a forward-thinking, regional concept is what separates mere ‘sustainable design’ from inherently good design. Many things can become sustainable through the attachment of products, but only a holistic concept applied through the process of design will create great architecture. Focusing too narrowly on sustainable systems and products will limit a design’s impact.

Solar Decathlon 2011 - New Jersey

Solar Decathlon 2011 – New Jersey

While Maryland was not the only team to address issues outside of solar energy, they were the only team that focused their presentation and marketing on educating the public about such problems. I appreciate the efforts of New Jersey to emphasize the importance of water collection. With the statistics showing that more people die each year from drinking dirty water than from all natural disasters combined, clean water and water conservation should be at the top of each contestant’s priority list. The Solar Decathlon is a great place to begin a dialogue about energy conservation, but focusing solely on solar power will not be enough.  There are additional issues that should be brought to the forefront if we expect the public to implement a sustainable lifestyle. We need to answer the question of how an individual can improve not only their own lives through reduced resource consumption, but also improve the lives of others in the same way. By showing the public how a simple act like turning off the lights or the faucet can impact their community, the decision to live sustainably becomes much more personal – and that is where change begins.

Institut Du Monde Arabe - Arab World Institute by Jean Nouvel

Institut Du Monde Arabe – Arab World Institute by Jean Nouvel

The next question is what the segue from application of sustainable technologies to holistic integration looks like. What aesthetic should the sustainable movement promote? Is the look of ‘sustainability’ a prescriptive aesthetic that can be repeated throughout the world, or is it something else entirely? How do we marry the ideals of beauty and sustainable functionality? A good example of how technology and aesthetics blend seamlessly is the Institute du Monde Arabe by Jean Nouvel in Paris. This Arab World Institute seeks to cultivate relationships between France and Arab world, particularly in the areas of science and technology. With the institute’s purpose in mind, it is fitting that Nouvel chose a highly technical solution to filter the light entering the building. A series of mechanized ocular apertures create a beautifully functional geometric solar screen that is reminiscent of traditional Islamic architecture. Nouvel’s design was inspired by traditional form, current need, cutting edge technology, and a broader sustainable goal. The result is a well received, functional, and beautiful piece of architecture. Keeping examples such as these in mind, how can we push the envelope on the aesthetics of sustainability so that architectural form can be free to respond to its environment more adeptly? Instead of just boxes and gabled roofs, maybe we begin to see geodesic domes with each panel collecting solar power, sweeping concrete forms with fiber optic PV collectors embedded as aggregates, or even draped fabrics that act as air filters and sun shades. The Solar Decathlon should aim to push the envelope concerning sustainable design aesthetics by encouraging the research and development of innovative technologies that solve a specific regional problem.

Solar Decathlon 2011 - New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington

Solar Decathlon 2011 – New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington

I would argue that sustainability is not a movement defined by a singular design aesthetic. While the current focus is myopically centered on technological systems, the heart of true sustainable design lies in responding to regional inspirations. The Victoria University of Wellington from New Zealand represented their region well through the use of sheep’s wool as an insulation product. Wool is one of their largest agricultural industries, so it is appropriate that the local economy would drive the design. Sustainability as a movement is not defined by technology, but rather the micro influences of each region’s craftsmen, traditions, available materials and specific site considerations. True sustainable design will never look the same; the generic opaque glass with metal louvers and over-done ipe wood siding should not be a universal indicator of sustainability. I myself am guilty of selecting the same materials I see around me – after all, it is the popular thing to do and an easy way to please consumers. But what if we provide consumers with more choices? What if instead of following the trends, we created them?

Solar Decathlon 2011 - Purdue

Solar Decathlon 2011 – Purdue

I took issue with Purdue’s Solar Decathlon entry, because they failed to address aesthetic innovation. Although their traditional, suburban styled house relates easily to today’s consumer, it fails to provide an alternative to the status quo. Without arguing about the purpose of architecture, it easy to see that Purdue’s design is merely a copy of what existed before it. There was no design or aesthetic innovation. If the Solar Decathlon aims to overcome challenges through transformative science and technology solutions and awards design excellence, they need a higher standard on how technology and aesthetics relate to one another. Merely attaching a solar array to a roof does not constitute good sustainable design; more importantly, it most assuredly does not constitute good design. The Solar Decathlon does not exist to simply act as a museum for design and technology but rather as an incubator for innovation. Frankly, Purdue’s design, though appealing by means of familiarity, simply was not innovative in its aesthetics. There needs to be more contemplation about how to achieve the goal of energy efficiency and market appeal without simply reincarnating the same design solution because ‘that’s what people want’. I would ask, ‘is that really what people want, or is that what you’ve been told people want?’. Perhaps consumers respond well to the typical traditional aesthetic not because of the aesthetics themselves, but because they “want what it stood for” (as stated by the character, Hoard Roark, in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead). How does one design a structure that represents familiarity, comfort, and embodies the concept of ‘home’ without literally copying precedent? I think it it is rooted in true sustainability, not attached technologies. Team Middlebury began at this genesis which is to be applauded: the very basics of sustainable design are founded in local materials, local customs, and local traditions. However, this cannot be the driving force for a design, or it will once again find itself in a stalemate. Drawing inspiration from the same local materials and local craftsmen again and again will only produce the same result with minor variations – the same problem we currently have: copies of copies of copies. To fully explore and expand the sustainable aesthetic, one must look outside of architecture for inspiration. For this reason, The University of Maryland stood head and shoulders above the rest to win the competition.

If the Solar Decathlon can focus on finding design and technology solutions for specific regional problems rather than overarching global themes, then the architecture will begin to take on an appropriate aesthetic. If students can work together with researchers to develop regional technologies based on concepts extraneous to architecture, then sustainability will reveal an aesthetic as varied as the eco-systems we seek to protect and the individuals we seek to shelter.

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  • “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
    – Steve Jobs, 1998.

    Innovation is the most difficult (yet most rewarding) aspect of being a part of a design-oriented profession. I believe the products of SD2011 are fascinating and interesting developments over previous Decathlons, particularly regarding affordability. Having a fairly in-depth knowledge of the extensive rules, rule changes, and intricacies of the design process for this competition, all teams had to compromise on design breakthroughs or proposals in lieu of maintaining eligibility to compete on the Mall. It was a rough and sincerely rigorous 2 years for every team, and from my point of view, these 19 houses were well worth it. 

    My biggest take-away from this experience: a new-found respect and admiration for design-build teams. Designs may “work” in our minds, drawings may convince a few others, renderings may make the project seem appealing to more, but it’s those hands that saw, hammer and drill 14-hours a day throughout the summer that REALIZE the true potential of a project for everyone. The level of detail and care that went into every joint, nail and screw made this project the winner – Congratulations Team WaterShed!

    And Brinn, hats off to you and your support team for investigating each house, and presenting clear, succinct reviews worth reading. I hope you enjoyed your stay in DC 🙂 

    • Great quote from Steve Jobs! I can only imagine how difficult it would be to compete in the Decathlon, and I applaud you and your team for a job well done. I agree – if rules for a competition were not in place, I’m sure there would be a broader range of solutions. However, given the constraints, I think this year’s competition was excellent, and will be an experience with lasting impact for you and everyone who had the opportunity to participate. Cheers!

      • Susan

        Brinn, there is much in your coverage of the Solar Decathlon and your comments about needing to change lifestyles with which I agree; however, I have to disagree about your assessment of Purdue’s house–and of “traditional” architecture in general.  I find most “modern” architecture (much of which actually goes back to the early part of the last century) to be cold and off-putting.  To me, it lacks warmth and comfort–might be nice to look at, but live there?  Eeeww, no.  It’d feel like living in an office …

        I think a key purpose of the SD–and a direction I see it moving towards–should be to apply cutting-edge technology and sustainable systems to marketable designs.  If it doesn’t appeal to the masses, it isn’t gonna sell, and if it isn’t gonna sell, it’s just an exercise in futility.  Sure, lots of people like innovative, modern architecture–but most don’t; if they did, you’d see neighborhoods of  stylish boxes being built.  Most people want the comfort of the familiar, and that, I think, is what made the Vermont, Massachusetts, Tidewater and Purdue houses so appealing–that traditional vernacular.  Massachusetts stepped up the innovation inside with its adaptable space (something an earlier design from the same state also did wonderfully well), but it retained a familiar, comfortable feel (it also sold). The Tidewater house was a tiny gem–and is actually going to be part of a multi-unit building. The Illinois house may have been homely on the outside (gray shoebox), but lived really well inside, with a “normal” sized living area and an amazing amount of storage–put a pitched roof on it, lose the patchwork exterior paint and multicolor cabinet lights and I’d be tempted. 

        Entrants in earlier decathlons did focus more on the environmental elements–green roofs, water filtration systems, etc.–but may have downplayed that because of rule changes and much-needed cost restraints.  Good for Maryland, keeping that as its focus–but do I really want my bathroom to be a hallway?  Do I really want my bed to become a conference table (maybe the guest bed)?  And where do we put clothes and shoes–are they supposed to fit in two very slender cabinets?  Some nice ideas, but I wouldn’t want to live there.   

        We aren’t going to effect widespread change unless we can sell to the masses.  What I’d like to see the SD do is increase the square footage allowance just a little (although almost no one used the allowed 1000 square feet) and add a third bedroom and a half bath (some of the bathrooms in this year’s homes were huge).  Then you have a product that you can really mass-market.  The schools could sell their plans to help fund further projects; it would make the whole exercise practical and affordable, and would get neighborhoods of next-generation, efficient, functional, cozy homes built.  That would help change the industry and our indulgent lifestyle.  There are already lots of modern “green” designs; what we need are designs that will appeal to more people, and I think Purdue and a few others hit that nail pretty square.

        • Susan – thanks for the reply. I think you’re really onto something with the idea of selling the plans that the schools produce. It had actually crossed my mind as well.

          Don’t get me wrong – I was very pleased with Massachusetts, Vermont, and Virginia’s designs. I felt they were very well done, and that they achieved a balance of traditional design with practical considerations. The reason I point out Purdue as missing the mark is because they lacked the innovation that the aforementioned teams achieved. MA, VT, and VA were all appealing and as you say, ‘hit the nail pretty square’; but then we must ask ourselves what differentiates these teams from Purdue. While Purdue’s design may be popular with the crowds because of familiarity, I think that is where the appeal stops. There were air ducts hidden behind wood veneer panels attached to the ceiling to appear as though they were beams that supported the ceiling – that isn’t an idea based on traditionalism or classicism, but rather one more akin to post-modernism (irony in form/materials). Having a ‘beam’ with an air vent sticking out of it is simply incorrect for the aesthetic and image they are claiming to portray. Traditionally, beams are structural members which support the load above it and transfer it to the ground. By removing the purpose of the beam and inserting another purpose within the same form, it makes me wonder if the team was knowledgeable about history. It is though their claim of ‘traditional’ is misinformed or simply incorrect. This is the typical problem we find with the majority of spec homes currently on the market: they don’t make sense. Why? Because the builders who design and build them are not educated as to what historical precedent deems correct and incorrect, and it leaves the public confused. Perpetuating these errors through elements like ‘faux air conditioning beams’ only serves to reinforce bad design principles. Hiding mechanical systems by pretending they’re structural elements does little to educate the public on architecture, and feels like a ‘rookie’ mistake. While Purdue’s plan may have worked well, the interior spaces were nothing special (compared to the other traditionally designed homes), and I took issue with the double height bathroom space; again, a design that does not adhere to any principles of tradition or classicism (Grand spaces should be public spaces, not service spaces like bathrooms – unless the point is to mock classicism). My criticism of their design has less to do with market appeal (it obviously appeals to the masses – it’s what they know and are taught to like), and more to do with their lack of adhering to the tenants they claim to subscribe to. The other teams (MA, VT, VA) all had the same goal of comfort, tradition, and market appeal – and they succeeded. As an example, the structural elements in the MA house were actually structural. They were also beautiful. I’m not advocating for all new green homes to be modern in style. I understand that markets will demand familiarity, but I hope that what we give consumers is both familiar and well (read: correctly) done. I think that Purdue missed in this respect by merely imitating existing form, while other teams got it right by using existing form as an inspiration – not a mandate.

  • Guest

    I would ask you to consider reading this blog post by the architecture firm INDRAlogic. To be quite frank, Maryland has completely missed the GLOBAL environmental problems which are the primary environmental issues of our time. By blindly disregarding their extensive use of rigid and spray foam, you are advocating a mere illusion of sustainability.

    the link to the blog is here: http://indra-logic.com/blog/

    • Thanks for the suggestion of the article. While I do believe Maryland did the best overall at addressing architecture, concise design, market appeal, etc. I am not ‘blind’ to the use of materials that are harmful to the environment. I interviewed Middlebury, as well as New Zealand and you’ll also notice I specifically applauded their efforts to use local materials (including NZ use of wool for insulation). While both teams did very well and were in my ‘top 5’ list, I wanted to focus the article on how design, aesthetics, and sustainability go together. I also promoted a more synergistic relationship between teams and researchers to solve problems such as the ones addressed in the article you mention. Do I think any one team got it all perfect? No. Did many come very close? Yes. The idea I am trying to promote is the idea of holistic design (including your concerns) without sacrificing in any one area – something that is often times extremely difficult if not impossible. In light that you can’t have it all, I feel that MD, VT, NZ did a great job.

  • Georgia’s grass roots Regional Solar Market Transformation Initiative is positioned to lead the nation in the development of Smart Grid both in terms of demonstrated benefits of Smart Grid deployment and development, manufacturing and sale of the technology and systems that will make the Smart Grid a reality. We are proposing UGA/GA Tech-21st Century Telecom, Inc. HBCUs, and others form a public private partnership to create a 2013 Regional Solar Decathlon event and GA Tech Engineering School in Hahira, GA. It will be similar to other GA Tech-ATDC locations including STEM, ICAPP, and Quick Start programs at our proposed (Hahira) Lowndes County Zero Energy International Corporate Headquarters facility. We feel a South Georgia/North Florida 2013 Regional Solar Decathlon event would be the “ideal display area” for a “renewal energy, transportation, telecommunication, manufacturing and R&D renaissance” including OMVC, OnStar, Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Ford, Toyota and others. We have connected with Dr. Patrick Pinhero and Dr. Ajeet Rohatgi.

  • Georgia’s grass roots Regional Solar Market Transformation Initiative is positioned to lead the nation in the development of Smart Grid both in terms of demonstrated benefits of Smart Grid deployment and development, manufacturing and sale of the technology and systems that will make the Smart Grid a reality. We are proposing UGA/GA Tech-21st Century Telecom, Inc. HBCUs, and others form a public private partnership to create a 2013 Regional Solar Decathlon event and GA Tech Engineering School in Hahira, GA. It will be similar to other GA Tech-ATDC locations including STEM, ICAPP, and Quick Start programs at our proposed (Hahira) Lowndes County Zero Energy International Corporate Headquarters facility. We feel a South Georgia/North Florida 2013 Regional Solar Decathlon event would be the “ideal display area” for a “renewal energy, transportation, telecommunication, manufacturing and R&D renaissance” including OMVC, OnStar, Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf, Ford, Toyota and others. We have connected with Dr. Patrick Pinhero and Dr. Ajeet Rohatgi.