Page N1.2 . 16 October 2002                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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  • Solar Houses Shine
  • AIACC 2002 Design Awards
  • Dallas AIA Awards

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    Solar Houses Shine


    "Overall we felt that every team had something special and unique to bring to the table and something that the architectural community could learn from," says Stephanie Vierra, a design and education consultant and chair of the architecture jury. But the three winning schools, she adds, "spoke at the highest level of what solar design could be."

    A New Kind of Solar Architecture

    The three architectural winners created distinct houses that, to some extent, reflected regional differences. "Each of their solutions was very different, but at the same time, they had a clear and highly expressed architecture in their solution," Vierra says. "They each had attempted to define a new kind of solar architecture."

    The University of Virginia, for example, used reclaimed and sustainable materials wherever possible. For the exterior finish, the team selected copper cladding reclaimed from a roof. A rain screen was constructed with wood from old shipping pallets. Inside, such wood was used for louvered window coverings, which helped to control incoming sunlight and to moderate ambient temperature. "In a state like Virginia," the team points out, "where the seasons are distinct but some days can be extreme, having an adjustable system can improve the efficiency of the house."

    Vierra says that the design jury appreciated that the team gave new life to old materials and that the rain screen and louvered coverings allowed sunlight to affect the space in different ways all day long. "It moved us," Vierra says. "It was a poetic, integrated solution to the problem." Virginia placed second in the overall competition.

    In several ways, the University of Puerto Rico faced some of the greatest challenges in participating in the Solar Decathlon. In addition to being the only international entry, the Puerto Rico team had to deal with the less familiar heating and cooling needs of the mid-Atlantic climate, instead of designing for year-round cross ventilation as is typical in a tropical climate.

    The team focused on integrating various systems. Many Puerto Ricans use solar power for hot water heating, for example, but not for electricity. The students designed their roof to incorporate both a solar electric system and a solar hot water system. Overall, the design had an open, airy feel befitting a tropical house, featuring a vaulted ceiling and a Spartan facade.

    "Puerto Rico was extremely elegant and simple and had a very calm feeling about it," Vierra says. "They paid homage to their culture with the vaulted ceiling and the furnishings."

    Also paying homage to its region was the University of Texas, which incorporated a Southern "dogtrot" breezeway into its unique design. The heart of the house was an Airstream trailer docked at its center, which served as the kitchen, laundry room, and bathroom. The heat and humidity generated by these facilities were contained in the trailer, reducing the need for air conditioning elsewhere.

    "Texas at Austin was a real departure from how we view residential architecture," Vierra says. "Generally in rural architecture, they start with a trailer first and build these ancillary buildings around it. [This team] created architecture using the dogtrot style and then raised it to a new level by putting in a mobile piece. It was a very nice expression of design aesthetics."

    For consumers, the Solar Decathalon's main lesson is that solar design can be beautiful, functional, and, most importantly, available. Several solar products on display are already on the market. "It's not either/or; every bit of solar use helps," says George Douglas, a spokesperson for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), one of the event's sponsors. "You don't have to change your lifestyle."

    Integrated Disciplines

    Other competing universities included Texas A&M, the University of Delaware, the University of Missouri-Rolla teamed with the Rolla Technical Institute, Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Auburn University, the University of North Carolina, Crowder College, Carnegie Mellon, Tuskegee, and the University of Maryland.

    Vierra notes that the schools that did not score well in design lacked a seamless integration between design aesthetics and technology. "We respected some of the solar concepts," she says, "but some houses showed no architectural delineation of the space. [Some teams] don't have the education and background to understand the difference between a house plan and architecture."

    To that end, Vierra adds that the Solar Decathlon articulated the value of an interdisciplinary approach to solar design in particular and sustainable architecture in general. "There were many disciplines giving insight to the process," she says, "and that's the way we think education should be."

    Kim A. O'Connell is a freelance writer who specializes in environmental and preservation journalism.

    The design jury included Glenn Murcutt, this year's winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize; Edward Mazria, founder of Mazria Riskin Odems; Steven Paul Badanes, founder of Jersey Devil Design/Build; Ed Jackson, director of applied research for the AIA; and J. Douglas Balcomb, research fellow for NREL. The event was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy's NREL, BP Solar, The Home Depot, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), and the American Institute of Architects (AIA).

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    ArchWeek Image

    The University of Virginia house won first place in the "Design and Livability" category.
    Photo: Warren Gretz/ NREL

    ArchWeek Image

    University of Virginia students working on some mechanical systems.
    Photo: Warren Gretz/ NREL

    ArchWeek Image

    Inside the University of Virginia house.
    Photo: Warren Gretz/ NREL

    ArchWeek Image

    The University of Puerto Rico house won second place in the "Design and Livability" category.
    Photo: Warren Gretz/ NREL

    ArchWeek Image

    Inside the University of Puerto Rico house.
    Photo: Warren Gretz/ NREL

    ArchWeek Image

    The University of Texas at Austin house won third place in the "Design and Livability" category.
    Photo: Warren Gretz/ NREL

    ArchWeek Image

    Inside the University of Texas at Austin house.
    Photo: Warren Gretz/ NREL

    ArchWeek Image

    An Airstream trailer serves as kitchen, laundry room, and bathroom for the University of Texas at Austin house, reducing heat and humidity in the rest of the house.
    Photo: Warren Gretz/ NREL


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