Recently I traveled to Washington DC to visit the 2009 Solar Decathlon exhibition, the U.S. Department of Energy’s biennial design competition that showcases off-the-grid houses which are designed and built by 20 selected collegiate teams from the Americas and Europe. This year, the National Mall became the site of a mini solar-house village where thousands of visitors had the chance to see up-close the latest advances in architecture and engineering.
As I was waiting in the long lines outside the houses (which despite the rainy weather had formed from early morning) I heard visitors asking questions about the real-world application of all the technologies that save electricity, water, and heating. Members from each competing team were on hand to offer insight into how these systems could work in these interested visitors’ houses. The public was encouraged to vote for their favorite houses in categories such as aesthetics, energy saving systems, and viability in the housing market.
Boston was represented by Team Boston, a collaboration of Boston Architectural College and Tufts University along with support by MIT, Harvard, and Mass Art. Their entry, the Curio.House, is meant to trigger the public’s curiosity on how good design could produce a module that utilizes less energy, is low budget, and helps to save the planet. The house itself is a very elegant pavilion with an open plan interior; the kitchenette, living and sleeping areas are within the same space. The centerpiece is a custom designed console that has multiple functions: it is a bookcase, a multi-media cabinet and a space-partitioning device. Apart from the technological features for low energy consumption, the most important aspect is the sophisticated monitoring system that allows the homeowners to see how their house expends energy; Thus allowing the homeowner to adjust their living habits accordingly. Team Boston has been making arrangements with a prefabrication company to put this design into production. Estimated costs for the Curio.House are $450K-$650K.
Another impressive entry was from Team Germany, the winner of this year’s Solar Decathlon, who had also won the competition in 2007. The team stated that “sustainability is skin-deep” and this bold claim directed their design of a two-story pavilion with its entire envelope clad in PV panels. This intricate system is responsible for producing 200% of the electricity that is required by the pavilion, which means that the house can give power back to the grid with which it is connected. The projected cost for such a house is $650K-$850K.
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Team California complete the top three of the 2009 Solar Decathlon. In second place the team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign designed a simple gable-end, barn-like structure that pays homage to rural architecture of the Midwest. The spartan metal structure conserves energy by means of window placement and window size, and also by creating an airtight envelope, which creates a highly thermal-insulated interior space. The Gable House is estimated to cost $250K-$450K. In third place, Team California offers a design that literally breaks out of the box: their Refract House is arranged in an L-shape manner. Californian aesthetics of white interior spaces form a living environment that opens up to nature. Despite the thoughtfulness in creating something original, the L-shape plan generates very uncomfortable and cramped interior spaces. For example the bedroom, although nicely separated from the rest of the house, is very small and awkward. A house like this is estimated to cost $450K-$650K.
These were just some of the 20 pavilion looking structures on the National Mall at this year’s Solar Decathlon. All the designs were very impressive, although there were some exceptions. My personal experience from visiting most of the houses was that only a few felt like “home”. Most of them felt like showroom pieces that demonstrate what is possible in today’s technologically advanced world.
I left Washington DC with mixed impressions. The general public seems receptive to new technologies and the architecture and engineering disciplines are willing to give their expertise. However, the thing that still drives me up a wall is that these initiatives are always going to be nice exhibits that take place every year or so that everyone can visit and be impressed by. Yet, being impressed does not translate to these designs being implemented on a mass-market scale. There are many aspects that remain to be changed in order for such solar designs to become mainstream. Mainly, regulation by means of building codes must be updated in order to reflect the application of new technologies.
Until such a change takes effect, we all have to pursue alternatives. We as designers and architects need to keep educating our clients on such eco-friendly solutions, and these can be incorporated into projects within budgetary restraints. It is really a situation where all involved parties should do their part.