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Cost-Effective Renewable Power Homes

September 27th, 2011 · 2 Comments

One of the nation’s most important Washington Monument Behind the Solar Village(and sadly too little discussed) intercollegiate competitions is on in Washington, DC: the biennial Solar Decathlon. Open to the public for a few more days (through 2 October), the Decathlon brings together 19 university teams from around the globe to compete across ten categories (thus, “decathlon”). (A review of all 19 Solar Decathlon homes with links to their websites.) This is a serious competition, with just 30 points currently separating the top ten teams and the top three in a six point spread.

Yesterday’s category: affordability.

One of the nation’s most important (and sadly too little discussed) intercollegiate competitions is on in Washington, DC: the biennial Solar Decathlon. Open to the public for a few more days (through 2 October), the Decathlon brings together 19 university teams from around the globe to compete across ten categories (thus, “decathlon”). (A review of all 19 Solar Decathlon homes with links to their websites.) This is a serious competition, with just 30 points currently separating the top ten teams and the top three in a six point spread.

The most significant competition change from the past is the creating of a cost category which is a path toward emphasizing affordability.

New for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, the Affordability contest encourages teams to design and build affordable houses that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems. In this way, the teams will demonstrate how energy-saving features can help consumers save money today.

A professional estimator will determine the construction cost of each house. Teams will earn 100 points for achieving a target construction cost of $250,000 or less. A sliding point scale will be applied to houses with estimated construction costs between $250,001 and $600,000. Houses with estimated costs that are more than $600,000 will receive zero points.

While cost considerations were part of “marketability” in the past competitions, this was not necessarily a serious element. One team discussed with me in 2009 how they had worked hard to have an audited cost estimate and then discovered that only a few other teams had made similar efforts. Whether correct or not, they were frustrated that, in their perspective, this was not a serious element of the competition analysis. This new category might well have driven the teams into designs that will be marketable at scale.

Today, the affordability contest results were announced. Parsons NS Stevens Accepts First Place in Affordability ContestEvery single team received points as they were all below a $600,000 construction … actually all of them below $500,000 … with 17 of 19 houses rated below $400,000. Two teams scored 100 points with analyzed prices below $250,000: the Parsons New School for Design/Stevens Institute of Technology Empowerhouse (team celebrating their win pictured at right) was rated to be a $229,890.26 house to construct while the Purdue’s INHome came in at $249,595. And, the third place team, Team Belgium’s E-Cube, got 99.885 points out of a possible 100 with an evaluated price tag of $251,147.09.

“Parsons NS Stevens truly exemplified the can-do attitude. The house is based on the affordability needs of the team’s target market in an urban context: low initial costs, low maintenance costs, and low utility costs.” Affordability Juror Matt Hansen continued, “Purdue’s use of a traditional design and construction approach demonstrated high tech energy and control systems for a sophisticated yet conventional market. The general public would not perceive it as a solar home.”continued, “Purdue’s use of a traditional design and construction approach demonstrated high tech energy and control systems for a sophisticated yet conventional market. The general public would not perceive it as a solar home.”

Several points about this:

  • Each of these teams put affordability as one of (if not their top) concern. Empowerhouse will be going into a DC community (with a second floor added making it a three bedroom, two bath house) in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and many parts of the DC government. Purdue’s INHome team put a price target and ruthlessly work to squeeze cost out of their design to underpin their determination to show that attractive solar living is a cost-achievable objective. Team Belgium members told me that this, out of the entire competition, was ‘the’ contest that they cared about — they wanted something that people could see buying.
  • Quite simply, the quality of thePurdue University Tours living spaces being offered at the Decathlon is astonishing. (Purdue interior to right.) And, the three most affordable (not ‘cheap’) homes are no exception. Each of these are extremely pleasant houses and, without question, I could see moving into each of these with my family … and can imagine others having that same reaction … even as they are quite different homes.

While this affordability indexing is, in many ways, a wonderful addition to the competition, there are some issues worth considering about it.

  • “Affordability” is not a simply $ figure since what is “affordable” in Indiana isn’t necessarily the same $ figure as in urban Washington, DC, nor does it necessarily reflect the affordability figure of a Belgian vacation community. The New York entry is one of the teams that is above $400,000. Note, we’re talking about a design intended to go on top of a Manhattan building (an existing building) as a Penthouse apartment. As similar sized apartments might sell for well over $1 million, is a straight $ figure the right path toward understanding affordability.
  • Affordability, of course, is far from just the purchase price. A well built home, with quality materials will cost less to maintain and make it easier to afford mortgage payments. A very efficiency home, which requires little energy to run it, will cost less to operate and make it easier to afford mortgage payments. A renewable energy home that eliminates utility bills will cost less to run and make it easier to afford mortgage payments. Without question, the DOE team running the Decathlon understands this … this is core to the energy efficiency and renewable energy (EE/RE) focus underpinning the Decathlon. Having one section focused solely on ‘purchase’, rather than ownership cost, (on the Cost to Buy (CtB) rather than Cost to Own (CtO)) fails to educate about total ownership costs and benefits …

While there is the “Market Appeal” category that might, in part, compensate New York for the ‘affordability’ disadvantage of differing market conditions and the entire testing of energy efficient systems seems to address the second, a question to consider: does an “affordability” competition that focuses on purchase price, rather than total ownership cost, help us foster a more sensible energy conversation.

Posts on 2011 Solar Decathlon include:

* Bright Rays of Sunshine Hit DC: A preview of The Solar Decathlon Provides an overview of each of the 19 teams.

A CHIP Shot at a Better Future? discussing the SCI-ARCH/CALTECH 2011 entry.

* Solyndra Showcase Hits Washington, DC discusses the University of Tennessee house.

* Department of Interior Exiles Innovation
 discussing the situation to move the Solar Decathlon away from the National Mall

Re the 2009 Solar Decathlon: German Solar Rides Power Surge to a Win which discusses the winning home, structure of the Decathlon scoring that enabled them to win, and thoughts about how to move forward. Provides links to discussions of other 2009 teams.

And, a different solar home visit opportunity. The annual DC-area Solar Homes Tour will overlap with Solar Decathlon the weekend of 1-2 October. Solar on the roof
The 2011 DC-area tour has over 50 homes available to visit with a range of solar and energy efficiency elements. (Be careful, most homes are available to visit on just one of the days.) The Saturday tour includes this home:

This 1958 split-level home has been updated with a range of EE/RE (energy efficiency / renewable energy) measures. The renewable energy elements include solar (5 kw solar pv system, solar hot water (two panels, 120 gallon storage tank), solar light tubes, solar cone for composting) and a high-efficiency fireplace insert.

Tags: Energy · Solar Energy · solar · solar decathlon

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 A Sunny Penthouse for NYC // Sep 30, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    [...] Cost-Effective Renewable Power Homes [...]

  • 2 Energy Cool possibilities at EcoBuild 2011 // Dec 8, 2011 at 10:51 am

    [...] it, I’d seen the Intus Windows before as they are used in one of the most cost-effective Solar Decathlon projects, the Empowerhouse, which is being integrated into a DC [...]

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