Does the Solar Decathlon influence
the home-Building industry?
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGy’S Solar Decathlon creates teams of students who can design inspiring, energy-neutral buildings powered by the
sun. But do the lessons learned in this biennial competition
actually migrate to the building industry?
It’s not surprising that some team members have stayed
together after graduation to form innovative engineering
companies. Six members of the 2007 Santa Clara University team launched Valence Energy ( valenceenergy.com),
developing controls for distributed generation assets within
building automation systems. Members of the 2005 New
york Institute of Technology team founded a photovoltaic
(PV) installation company, EmPower CES (empowerces.
com), in Long Island, N.y. Cornell University’s 2005 team
spawned Zero Energy Design ( zeroenergy.com) of Boston,
creating energy-neutral solar homes using whole-building
jim TeTro PhoToGraPhy
But if Solar Decathlon alumni have to form start-up companies to bring
innovative techniques to the marketplace, rather than joining established
construction or engineering firms, these techniques may remain niche-bound for years to come.
“The building industry is notoriously slow to adopt new ideas,” says
Emile Chin-Dickey of Zero Energy Design (ZED). “It needs to embark on
a serious educational effort to get up to speed with what’s possible these
days, and our feeling is that this will only happen gradually.”
ZED staffers confront that issue when searching for contractors to realize their building designs. They look for builders who are open to new
techniques. The designer often needs to explain the new technology. An
open-minded builder understands and often suggests a more efficient way
of achieving a design goal, thus becoming a valued collaborator. This is
one way the values of the Decathlon percolate into the mainstream of the
The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), which represents
some 65,000 home builders and remodelers, might take issue with Chin-Dickey’s characterization of its industry. The NAHB has embraced green
building with these programs:
Building Standard, addressing site preparation, resource efficiency, environmental quality, operations and maintenance.
industry professionals this year.
According to Stephen Melman, director of economic services at the
NAHB, the association regards green building as a much broader concept
than simply adding a solar system to one’s home. Its definition encompasses
low-E windows, high-R insulation, durable and energy-efficient siding and
roofing, and passive solar aspects of internal walls and floors and airflow
— all techniques common in Decathlon designs. Melman
notes a growing trend among NAHB members toward
building-integrated PV, achieved by merging the rooftop
solar installation with the traditional construction process.
In practice, this means roofing contractors are building
partnerships with solar installers or, in the case of larger
building contractors, developing the combined expertise
Many NAHB members believe green building and
energy efficiency will become critical sales points as the
country moves out of the recession, Melman said. Members
report keen interest by prospective buyers who hope that
solar arrays, combined with sensible efficiency measures,
will offset future utility rate hikes.
“When we surveyed potential buyers, however, we
discovered a fairly hard cap,” Melman said. “Most were
prepared to spend $2,000, $5,000, $7,000 or more on energy-efficiency
features. But the break point for most seemed to come at $10,000, above
which the net value of clean energy and sustainability wasn’t recognized.”
The Solar Decathlon appears to teach its lessons in two ways — from the
top down and from the bottom up. As an example of the top-down process,
take the example of Cristina Zancani, a member of the 2005 Rhode Island
School of Design team who now works at Perkins+Will ( perkinswill.com)
in New york. The 70-year-old architectural firm is one of the sponsors of
the 2009 Solar Decathlon. Its green credentials and capabilities are among
P+W’s strongest marketing tools. According to Zancani, the Decathlon
and the techniques it showcases act as catalysts, enabling companies like
hers to create designs for clients that are more carefully conceptualized to
be responsive to the environment.
But P+ W’s main clients are commercial, civic, corporate and institutional. The company serves very few homebuyers. The “bottom up” lesson for
buyers, reports the firm’s sustainability leader, Peter Syrett, is a function of
the Solar Decathlon’s growing stature as a public event. With each succeeding contest, he says, the visiting public — numbering more than 100,000
in 2007 — becomes more aware of the practicalities in solar design. Syrett
feels that a tipping point in consumer understanding has been reached.
That would explain why NAHB member companies are being pressed by
prospective buyers on their green credentials.
A ZED-designed one-of-a-kind home in Truro, Mass., featuring separate
heating zones, double-stud framing, ground-source heating , battery-backed
net-metered PV, bamboo flooring and air exchange ventilation, will probably remain unique for some time to come. But the broader techniques are
moving into the mainstream, thanks to programs like the NAHB’s Green
Building courses and to architects who pride themselves on their green
sensitivities. The process should accelerate in a kind of feedback loop, as
volume-driven price reductions lead to more volume. If they do, the technology on display at the National Mall will increasingly find its way into
residential neighborhoods across the country. ST
By ChRiS STiMPSon
Chris Stimpson is executive
campaigner at ASES-Solar
Nation ( email@example.com).