In 2000, the Department of Energy introduced the “first-of-its-kind solar house competition.” Fourteen teams representing universities and colleges from the Unites States and Puerto Rico competed in ten different categories as they designed and constructed solar powered houses over a fifteen-month period. The houses were shipped to Washington, DC in 2002 and assembled into a solar village on the Washington Mall where their performance was measured and their design features assessed. Beginning in 2005, the Solar Decathlon has occurred bi-annually and now, for the second time, the solar village will be located in Irvine, California for the 2015 competition.
In December, 2013, a small team of Yale undergraduates in architecture and engineering prepared a proposal and submitted an application for the 2015 Decathlon, eventually being selected as one of eighteen teams from across the United States as well as from Germany, Italy, and Panama. Over the next 8 months, they assembled a larger team of students, developed a schematic plan, determined a budget, and met all the required milestones set up by the Department of Energy. Although the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design at the Yale School of Engineering had originally agreed to serve as the primary “home” for the project, they pulled out citing concerns for both financial and human resources. The School of Architecture stepped up to advise the students even insofar as we had our own resource concerns, particularly as the School is already committed to a major design-build activity: the Vlock Building Project.
The premise of the Solar Decathlon—that the design, construction and operation of a net zero energy house fully powered with solar energy serves as both an important educational tool as well as model for wider adoption in the residential market—may be noble, but it is fraught with many problematic assumptions. The use of a private property boundary as the site and unit for energy balancing misunderstands how energy systems behave, the privileging of solar power for producing electricity neglects much more efficient and much less expensive zero carbon methods for energy supply, and the requirement that the house interior be homogeneously conditioned and lighted at standard levels perpetuates a century-old approach to the human environment that is not only extraordinarily energy intensive, but that no longer reflects our contemporary understanding of human physiology. As such, the School of Architecture agreed to play a more central role in furthering the design and development of the project under two conditions: (1) that all involved consider the Decathlon not just as an end product to be delivered but as a means for asking and exploring important questions about systems and technology, and (2) that the students be willing to challenge the performance criteria developed by the Department of Energy in order to extend the bounds of energy efficiency and the possibilities for alternative approaches. A seminar was organized during the Fall semester 2014 to foreground these pedagogic questions while simultaneously developing the design of the house. Key to the organization of the seminar was opening it to the Master of Architecture students in order bring in their experience and design ability, rendering the seminar as the only instance at the Yale School of Architecture in which undergraduates and graduates team together in a major design project. We have also been fortunate that so many partners have joined us to support the project as well aid in teaching the seminar: the Yale Climate and Energy Institute has handled all the administrative paperwork and budgeting aspects, Yale Facilities has provided design and analysis in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and environmental health and safety, Yale’s West Campus is supplying space and supplemental materials, Atelier One provided the structural engineering design, and Atelier Ten provided the lighting design.
As the Fall semester closes, we are finalizing the Design Development drawings. Now the hard part begins. In order to move into the construction phase, we need to shift our focus toward resources—financial, material and human. If we can raise the necessary funds, find donors to provide technology and materials, and hire skilled builders, Yale’s first entry in the Solar Decathlon just might be ready to open for visitors next October in California.