Pushing the Envelope
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Written by: Brinn Miracle