Global Appeal: Sustainable Design from New Zealand

During my time at the Solar Decathlon 2011, I was able to talk with Eli Nuttall from the New Zealand: Victoria University of Wellington team. Eli gave an interesting perspective on how a foreign team approached the challenges of designing, building and transporting a house to a contest location across the world.

Solar Decathlon 2011 - New Zealand - Victoria University of Wellington

Solar Decathlon 2011 – New Zealand – Victoria University of Wellington

Eli told me a bit more about the Solar Decathlon affordability contest, and how his team worked out a strategic budget.

When we began this project, we set about doing everything we could to win the competition. We worked out a strategy that would get us the most points overall and in all the contests. Now, the affordability has a sliding scale, so we actually strategized to spend under $350,000 even though the primary goal is $250,000. We knew that in that bracket you still get a lot of points, but you get to reinvest a lot of money in the house. So that was our strategy. Again, even in that bracket we tried to reduce it as much as possible. Coming from New Zealand, we didn’t know how [the Department of Energy] would cost it. Materials cost differently, labor is different, so it was a real challenge. We came in at about $303,000, so we’re really happy with that. It’s pretty much what we’d worked out as the cost in New Zealand if you convert the cost into dollars. So we’re comfortable with that result.
I asked Eli if the pricing for each home in the contest was based on a particular geographic location.
Yes, it is based in D.C. They had an independent quantity surveyor who estimates based on your drawings, and he’s been doing that through the last year. So from the developed design drawings, he then presents the cost and we have a chance to make rebuttals against that to see if things are fair and see if things shouldn’t be included. Then we did the construction documentation and he did another estimate and then as-built drawings which is the latest estimate. He had a walk through to make sure what we built is what we drew. Then that’s the final cost. So it’s a real rigorous process.
Solar Decathlon 2011 - New Zealand - Victoria University of Wellington

Solar Decathlon 2011 – New Zealand – Victoria University of Wellington

The New Zealand design is based on the concept of the Kiwi Bach (pronounced ‘Batch’), and embodies, “a strong connection with the landscape, a hands-on ‘do it yourself’ mentality and socializing outdoors,” according to the team’s website. I asked Eli how the design was received by the New Zealand community.

I think for the market we’re aiming for it’s an ideal solution. It’s small and compact, and incredibly energy efficient. It’s comfortable to live in. In terms of design style, it is a unique design even for New Zealand. It’s based on those values of this New Zealand holiday home and of living at the beach. The actual design is unique and that drew a lot of attention even back home.
While a design may appeal to a local audience, reaching a broad, global consumer base can be difficult. I was curious as to how the American audience reacted to the New Zealand design, and whether the intent was to appeal to a wide market or focus on their local community.
It’s an interesting challenge, because we want it to represent New Zealand and say something about us, but it’s on foreign soil. So we sought to take a slice of New Zealand to this competition, so this house is trying to represent us. I think that’s what’s drawn the attention of the public, is that it’s something foreign and exotic. We had a good practice run in Wellington. We practiced our talks and tours and then tweaked it for the U.S. audience as well. We didn’t have too many expectations. But what we’ve had here has really exceed any expectation we could have had. The public has been so engaged and so positive towards it. I think we’ve all enjoyed giving the tours, as it’s a chance to show off what we’ve done and they’re receiving it well.
It was easy to see why the design was appealing, with beautiful natural materials, and an open concept plan that invited guests to linger both inside and out. I asked Eli what the plans were for the house once the competition ended.
We’ve actually sold it. We put it up for auction before we left so we had a lot of attention. We set it up in Wellington and had the public through it, and practiced this type of thing. So from there, we had an auction and a woman won it for about $326,000 NZD. So she’ll be setting it up and living in it. There are so many other costs associated with this [competition], like shipping the house and transporting 31 team members here. The university put in a big investment and this is a chance to recover some of that cost.
Solar Decathlon 2011 - New Zealand - Victoria University of Wellington

Solar Decathlon 2011 – New Zealand – Victoria University of Wellington

Budget concerns and fundraising are always a big priority for the Solar Decathlon teams. For an international team, they also have to deal with shipping a house across oceans and continents. I talked with Eli about how participating as an international team factored into the logistics of design and construction.

It was the transportation that was the biggest challenge. We also had to deal with U.S. building codes as well as New Zealand’s. But that didn’t prove to be too problematic. The biggest challenge was shipping dimensions, dealing with hauling companies and justifying how much damage might happen as it transports. Figuring out what the best materials are for that, and working within those dimensions and deciding how the details work. The house comes apart and is put back together, so there are unique details for how it looks seamless and ends up with a nice result. I worked closely with the logistics manager, and he was the point of contact for all the companies. We worked closely with a New Zealand company, Mainframe, early on and they’ve got a lot of experience and they worked alongside us to get this unusual thing shipped. It’s not just something in containers, it’s over sized and took lots of resolve to get it here.
Resolve was only one factor to making this project a success. In addition to the competition requirements, the team wanted to incorporate unique and local products. I asked Eli about their unusual choice for insulation as well as a few other interesting building materials.
We’ve got a large agricultural industry in New Zealand, and sheep is the biggest. We used sheep’s wool as insulation. There are manufacturers who commercially produce it. We thought it would be a great story to bring and once we did the research, it proved to be a great product for insulation. It’s comparable to batt insulation products, and has some unique properties with how it deals with moisture, and the fact it keeps its loft as well. We’ve got thick walls and you want to avoid your insulation slumping and so wool holds that shape. It’s had a lot of attention over here. Back home, everyone knows about it, but not here.
In addition to sheep’s wool for insulation, the team also used a synthetic, fiber reinforced concrete. Eli gave me more information on how that came into play for the floors:
It’s a synthetic, fiber reinforced concrete. We did a lot of energy simulations to work out what thickness we wanted, and we found that optimum was about two inches. So regular concrete at two inches wasn’t going to work very well, especially with transport. So there was a manufacturer in New Zealand, making this synthetic reinforced concrete. It’s just a fiber, no re-bar or anything like that. It’s just a slurry and when it sets, it yields almost like steel rather than concrete so when it bends it just gets little fissures in it instead of big cracks. This was really important because we were fork lifting and crane lifting the house and shipping it, and we didn’t want a big crack to turn up. This was the perfect product and it’s the same density as concrete, so it has the same thermal mass properties. It worked really well. You can see it when we lift them up, they’ll just bend.
Solar Decathlon 2011 - New Zealand - Victoria University of Wellington

Solar Decathlon 2011 – New Zealand – Victoria University of Wellington

Sustainability, as an architectural term, is often ambiguous and over-arching. I asked Eli if he thought it could be categorized as a cultural movement, architectural movement or something different.

It’s incredibly universal. Everyone understands the impacts it’s starting to have. It’s a focus not just for architecture and design, but it’s a way of life. How we design our cities, and how we live. Architecture needs to move with that shift. Competitions like this are a good way to educate the next generation of designers.
It may be overwhelming for designers, but even more so for the average consumer. I asked Eli if he had any specific advice for those who wish to live a sustainable lifestyle.
It’s something we struggled with, and there’s so much mixed information that it’s difficult to get a direction for that. My advice would be to do the research and ask the right people the right questions. You’ve got to look deeper than what someone is just marketing as sustainable. There’s a lot of that at the moment. [The competition] is about showing energy efficiency in a positive light. This house shows you can live very comfortably, you can have all the amenities you want but it doesn’t use more electricity than it can produce. It’s a way of life, and this is a way of promoting it.

With a striking design like the Victoria University of Wellington’s, there is no doubt that consumers will want to become part of the green movement. It was great to hear Eli’s take on the competition and see how the international community responds to the same challenges we all face. For more images of the New Zealand house, as well as other competitors, check out these images from the Solar Decathlon. For more event coverage, browse through previous articles.

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