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Blueprints Go Green

Illustration by Hanh Nguyen.
Illustration by Hanh Nguyen.

The Dynamic Augmented Living Environment (DALE) is a long name for a small house. The structure looks more like a robot, or an especially large computer. Its sides and roof are covered with solar panels, and its large windows let the light shine into the minimalist interior. The two modules can slide apart to create an outdoor space for entertaining guests, grilling hamburgers in the open air, or enjoying a starry night. DALE demands a second glance. This strange looking structure, and other buildings like it, might be at the forefront of a new design movement. That’s what the house’s creators, students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology, were hoping when they entered and won the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2013 Solar Decathlon, a biennial contest that invites aspiring engineers, architects, and environmentalists to create their own sustainable houses.

Kate McMillan ’16 and Juan Pablo Ponce de Leon ’16 are now embarking upon the same challenge: designing and building an elegant, energy efficient home. Leading a team of twenty-nine Yalies, they have spent months drafting budgets, securing funding, and making blueprints for the competition deadline in October 2015. Yale will compete in the Solar Decathlon for the first time since the competition was initiated in 2002. The requirements are daunting. Entries are judged and scored in ten categories, including market appeal, home entertainment, and energy balance. The house must have all the amenities of a normal home, including a dishwasher, television, and stereo system, but it must run entirely on solar energy. With an eye toward the future, the Department of Energy also requires that the house be capable of charging an electric car—all in a building that does not exceed a thousand square feet.

The team is now working about twenty hours a week, preparing to build a prototype of the house at Yale’s West Campus. Their current design includes a communal space, and two bedrooms with a bathroom in between, to imitate a house for roommates post-graduation. “It’s an architecture thing: your house has to have a story,” said Robert Loweth ’16, who specializes in engineering. “We thought that was what we could most easily relate to.” McMillan expressed a similar sentiment, saying that they were going to focus on a theme and not just “cherry pick” the best features and technologies.

There’s a catch: new technology often comes at a high price. In an effort to curb expenses, the competition awards full points in the affordability category only if the construction costs less than $250,000. The DOE only provides $50,000, so the rest must be raised through donations. McMillan says raising the rest of the money was one of the most challenging parts of the project. These funds came from a variety of Yale-affiliated institutions as well as for-profit companies. “There were people who said we were a little crazy when we told them what we needed,” McMillan added.

The house could be cheaper if solar power were already an efficient technology, but as Loweth pointed out, “you need a fairly big surface area of panels to be generating a significant amount of energy.” The competition requires that the houses run on solar power, but Loweth believes that the design should focus on reducing overall energy usage instead of just touting solar panels as “the energy solution of the future.” Current strategies include installing low-energy lights and heating the house through water pipes in the floor rather than through the standard air ducts.

Michelle D. Addington, a Yale professor of sustainable architecture design, and Michael Oristaglio, the executive director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, are advising the team. But the undergraduates have spearheaded the team and will remain responsible for seeing their project to completion. They have set the standards high. “We want a house that is seamless in design,” Ponce de Leon said. But, at the same time, it’s an experiment. Ponce de Leon emphasizes that the team is seeking innovation over perfection. “People are often reluctant to take risks,” he explained. “But if we want success, it’s something we need to take.”

The Solar Decathlon team hopes that the house will inspire architects, engineers, and homeowners to “reëxamine the way we live, and to strive toward a more sustainable future,” said Thaddeus Lee ’17, another team member. They are searching for a unified design precisely to encourage the expansion of solar housing. Some houses will be auctioned off while others will return to their home schools.

Even with dozens of innovative and creative models to choose from, it remains difficult to convince the public to reconsider what makes a home. Our suburbs are sprawling and our streets are lined with identical colonials. But as energy costs rise, our architecture and infrastructure might begin looking more like something out of “The Jetsons.” Green architects are working to meet modern challenges, designing smaller houses that are energy efficient and able to withstand extreme storms.

The DOE’s competition page states that the Solar Decathlon seeks to prepare students to participate in the nation’s clean-energy workforce, and to show the public that “green” houses can be comfortable and affordable. “If I were building a house on my own twenty years down the line, this is what I’d be trying to do,” Loweth said.

Though passionate about their project, the students know that sustainable design has a long way to go. Even after the blueprint is perfected and the model is built, convincing a society to rethink its conception of a home will be a difficult task. But the eighteen houses that began as blueprints could be the path to a greener future.

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