Architecture meets energy efficiency in future of solar homes

How do you design an attractive, effective, and energy-efficiency solar-powered house? Victor Olgyay, director of Rocky Mountain Institute's building practices, offers some tips.

Toby Talbot/AP/File
Student Brad Paisker checks photo-voltaic panels on the roof of the Norwich University solar-powered home in Northfield, Vt. Vermont's Norwich University and Middlebury College sent their student-designed solar homes to the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in California.

Great architecture has never been about winning; inspiration is a fickle flame, and does not necessarily rise from the competition around you. Architects pour their souls into their art, and are more interested in a conversation about ideas than a medal. I’ve had my doubts that competition is a good way to generate wonderful designs, but frankly the 2013 Solar Decathlon, in which I was fortunate enough to be a juror, has generated some wonderful designs and important conversations.

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is an international competition that challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production.

So what makes a winning entry? My opinion is it remains the elusive embodiment of good design; creating a single elegant solution from a big bag of conflicting requirements. Let me tell you what I look for. 

1. A strong concept well executed

Architecture is a language, and you’d better have something to say. This year the Southern California Institute of Architecture’s (Sci-Arc) entry had an innovative idea: a house in two pieces, that could move apart or together depending on the weather. Like it or hate it, it’s hard not to argue that it is a coherent concept. Missouri ‘s entry was a formal response to the urgent need for disaster shelter. Austria’s entry dematerialized the north and south walls to seamlessly blend interior and exterior space. All of these ideas supported the design solutions.

Other concepts, like emphasizing the mechanical room, just didn’t move me. In my opinion, a mediocre concept, even if well executed, is still a wrong turn.

2. Intriguing architecture

Is it interesting? Good architecture captures the imagination. Solid forms can be used to reference something familiar in a new way. The Czech Republic ‘s entry this year was a box within a lattice frame, which played with light and shadow, framed views, and alternately hid and revealed the architecture as a person moved through it. Clever and intriguing.

However, the quest to be interesting is not license to do anything you please. The intrigue needs to be appropriate and enlightening—we rarely learn from random acts of architecture. The creativity in details was rampant at the Decathlon, from heat recovery off the clothes dryers at the Santa Clara house to gesture-based light switches in the Stanford house. And occasionally there were moments like the central skylight in the University of Southern California house—a truly sublime revelation welcoming the sky like a James Turrell skyspace.

3. Comfort

Does it feel good? I’ll admit—I’m a humanist. I get mad at architecture that fits me like a corset, or pokes me in the eye. I like buildings that are comfortable to be in, that adjust to me. Give me a building that frames a view, leads me down a path, lets me relax, compresses and expands space. Buildings must do more than house their intended use; they can support our lives, encourage our aspirations. Anything less is, well, less.

4. Wholeness

When design is really carefully considered, the result feels complete. Not a hodgepodge of ideas held together with sticky tape and glue, but an integrated composition where everything supports the concept, and nothing is superfluous. Being simple and editing out the unnecessary brings discipline and elegance to building. The Norwich Vermont house did this very well. Its concept of affordability was supported by adhering to the rigorous high-performance “passive house” design standards, which in turn allowed the designers to essentially design out significant mechanical systems, increasing its affordability. Nice.

5. Regionalism

And finally, the world deserves regionalism. The days of imagining that the same house should be built the same in different climates are over. Celebrate Seattle! Enjoy New England! Buildings that do not embrace the genius of place are stealing a bit of our souls. Being alive includes being aware of our environment, and actively engaging with it.

The Decathlon is a challenge in this category, in that many of the buildings were intended for very different climates (such as Alberta, Canada, or the deserts of Las Vegas) but also had to perform at the Irvine, California, competition site. The most clever solution to this conundrum was the “bi-regional” Czech house, which performed well in the warm California climate with a small shaded window on the south, but would be rotated 180 degrees when located in a cold Czech climate—its open courtyard would then capture the sun and passively warm the building.

High-performance doesn’t mean funky architecture

You may have noticed a conspicuous absence of “solar architecture” in this essay. All 19 entries (one entrant withdrew months before the event), from West Virginia’s log cabin to Alberta’s crystalline white forms performed as net-zero energy buildings. There is no reason for a high-performing building to look like “solar architecture” anymore. We can—must—have performance and wonderful architecture integrated as a seamless whole.

It goes without saying that this takes a colossal amount of effort to produce. The practice of architecture is a slog, and adding the complexities of the Decathlon is even more onerous. It is clear, as Richard King of the DOE stated, “The 2013 buildings are the best contestants yet.” The entrants this year have learned from the previous generation of entrants, and even more importantly, have themselves become the new generation of leaders to bring beautiful affordable net-zero buildings to the marketplace. The contest is improving our design conversation. Through our understanding of how to design with climate, we have generated a responsible architecture for reducing our impact on the earth’s climate.

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