Oct
23
2009

JGordon visits the future, where houses are small, sustainable, and expensive

A solar home and a rainy day DC: This is the University of Minnesota's "ICON" solar home. Even beyond MN solidarity, ICON was one of my favorites. It ended up getting the top scores in the engineering and lighting competition, and 5th place over all.
A solar home and a rainy day DC: This is the University of Minnesota's "ICON" solar home. Even beyond MN solidarity, ICON was one of my favorites. It ended up getting the top scores in the engineering and lighting competition, and 5th place over all.Courtesy JGordon
Ahoy, Buzzketeers. Sorry, it’s been a few days since I’ve posted, but, see, I’ve been traveling… to the future.

By the way, I consider the east coast to be the future, because, you know, whatever time it is here… it’s an hour later there! I often call my friends in New York just to ask what I should expect in the next hour. “Loneliness,” they say.

But this weekend I too got to see the future with my own eyes. And I will tell you this: the weather is awful, but the houses are pretty sweet.

I attended the final two days of the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon in Washington DC. Art did a post on the Decathlon last week, but here’s a quick refresher: the Solar Decathlon is an architecture, design and engineering challenge, sponsored by the US Department of Energy, in which colleges and universities from around the world (mostly from the United States) compete to build the best solar-powered home. The houses are judged in ten categories: architecture, engineering, market viability, lighting design, communications, comfort zone (temperature and humidity), hot water, appliances, home entertainment and net metering. The intention is to build a home excelling in those categories that gets all its energy (and more, sometimes) from the sun. The houses in this competition were all approximately 800 square feet, and designed accommodate one couple each.

Obtaining and using solar energy (through both photovoltaics, for turning light into electricity, and solar thermal, for gathering heat from solar radiation) is, of course, a major focus in the houses, but there was a lot more to the houses’ innovations than the arrays of solar panels. Everything is engineered to use as little electricity as possible, so windows are placed to get the maximum amount of light during the day, hot water is used to heat the house and (in the case of Minnesota’s house) dehumidify the air (see the picture and caption), and everything was carefully insulated according to the environment the house was designed for. In Arizona’s house, for instance, the windows on the southern wall were filled with water, which would absorb heat during the day, and radiate it back off during the cool night, while the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign insulated their home so thoroughly that they claim it could be heated with a handheld hair dryer. Many of the houses used energy so efficiently that they would—over the course of a full year—produce more energy than they used, and could feed the surplus electricity back into the grid, essentially selling it to the power company.
Team Germany's house took first place: I didn't get to go inside this one, but the outside was very... cubey. But, located even further east, Germany is far in the future, so naturally things would be a little different there.
Team Germany's house took first place: I didn't get to go inside this one, but the outside was very... cubey. But, located even further east, Germany is far in the future, so naturally things would be a little different there.Courtesy JGordon

I was able to get into 19 of the 20 houses (the line to the house that took first place, Germany’s, was just too long), and they were all quite nice. None of them had the feeling that I think is sometimes associated with “green” products—that is, that they won’t do whatever they’re supposed to do as well as the products we’re used to. The things that seemed “off” to me were design decisions that weren’t necessarily associated with energy use (I’m just not into wet bathrooms, I wouldn’t want an exterior door opening into my bedroom—that sort of thing). The problem I had with most of the houses was, ironically, that they were too nice.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: The second place house. Not a great picture. Imagine the rest as looking like this, but stretched into a rectangle. This was the only certified "passive house." Its insulation and air exchange system make the house extremely efficient to heat and cool.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: The second place house. Not a great picture. Imagine the rest as looking like this, but stretched into a rectangle. This was the only certified "passive house." Its insulation and air exchange system make the house extremely efficient to heat and cool.Courtesy JGordon

In ensuring that the houses would be both very energy efficient and very comfortable, almost all of the teams ended up with pretty expensive projects, even though the contest limited the houses to a footprint of about 800 square feet. This site lists estimates of construction costs of the homes, and as steep as they are, I’m not sure they’re totally accurate—maybe it was just gossip, but some of the architects were saying that a couple teams’ projects ran up to and over a million dollars, which doesn’t seem to be reflected on the Solar Decathlon’s official page. Only Rice University’s house, built for a lower income couple, was less than $200,000 dollars. Most of the homes cost several times that.
Team California walked away with 3rd place: A man wearing a garbage bag admires the elegant $450,000-$650,000 home from outside.
Team California walked away with 3rd place: A man wearing a garbage bag admires the elegant $450,000-$650,000 home from outside.Courtesy JGordon

I understand that these are prototype structures, and that their costs would be significantly reduced if they were mass produced, but even dropping $100,000 off a $600,000, 800 square foot house still leaves you with an awfully expensive house that most people (including the designers) would consider too small for an average family. The homes were built with particular markets in mind, and those markets were generally young, professional couples (with money) or retiring couples (with money), but if the point of the competition was to make progress in sustainable design… well, that doesn’t make much sense. Sustainable solar architecture has to be something that most of the people in the world could afford to take advantage of. Even if everybody in the world who could afford to buy a very small, half a million dollar solar powered house did, I don’t think it would make much difference to the planet’s consumption of non-renewable resources. It would be interesting to see family-sized solar homes built, or systems that could power an apartment complex… something like that. I’m sure the architects and engineers involved would be totally capable of that, but it wasn’t the nature of this competition.
ICON's desiccant dehumidifier: A chemical solution (basically road salt and water) sucks moisture out of the air as it passes through the clear tube. Heat from the solar thermal panels "recharges" the solution when it gets too saturated. Way more efficient than compressor dehumidifiers
ICON's desiccant dehumidifier: A chemical solution (basically road salt and water) sucks moisture out of the air as it passes through the clear tube. Heat from the solar thermal panels "recharges" the solution when it gets too saturated. Way more efficient than compressor dehumidifiersCourtesy JGordon

It was still all very cool, and it’s neat to see what people come up with when they aren’t really bound by the above practicalities. Maybe seeing new, innovative features in beautiful little luxury homes will get people excited about using them on a larger scale, or implementing them into their older houses.
The ICON home's solar array: On the far left are solar thermal panels, in the middle are regular photovoltaic panels, and on the right are glass photovoltaic panels that can absorb light from both sides. The latter form a wall for the mudroom, and part of the awning above the deck.
The ICON home's solar array: On the far left are solar thermal panels, in the middle are regular photovoltaic panels, and on the right are glass photovoltaic panels that can absorb light from both sides. The latter form a wall for the mudroom, and part of the awning above the deck.Courtesy JGordon

I’ll toss some pictures of the event up with this post, but then I need to get back to trying to adjust back to the present time. I mean, for most of y’all, it’s like 3:00. But for me it’s like 4:00. I’ve got to get out and buy some lottery tickets before this wears off.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <h3> <h4> <em> <i> <strong> <b> <span> <ul> <ol> <li> <blockquote> <object> <embed> <param> <sub> <sup>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • You may embed videos from the following providers vimeo, youtube. Just add the video URL to your textarea in the place where you would like the video to appear, i.e. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pw0jmvdh.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Images can be added to this post.

More information about formatting options