Too Expensive: The Solar Decathlon (redux)

Photo by Jack Dempsey for the U.S. Department of Energy.

Photo by Jack Dempsey for the U.S. Department of Energy.

When I visited the 2017 Solar Decathlon in suburban Denver last month, I was especially attentive to to issue of costs.  It is very expensive for schools to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's event.  The DOE says the estimated cost to date for teams is anywhere from $300,000 to $1.5 million.  Previously I discussed the overall cost of the Decathlon and questioned the value of the event. 

This year West Virginia University withdrew "because of insurmountable budget challenges" and Washington State University did not finish their house in time to compete.  It's getting to be a familiar story.  In 2015, as I noted here, Yale University withdrew from the competition just weeks before it occurred, citing problems with fundraising.  (I would love any of those students to comment here.)

At the 2017 Decathlon, I heard two students independently use the phrase "unbelievably expensive" to describe their homes.  To find out what "unbelievably expensive" means, I dug into the students' competition materials.

2017 Solar Decathlon: Actual Construction Costs
from the Market Potential contest submittals

[Not Reported]  
[Not Reported]  
[Not Reported]

Swiss Team   (pdf link)
Las Vegas   (pdf link)
Northwestern   (pdf link)
Wash U – St. Louis   (pdf link)
Maryland   (pdf link)
UC Davis   (pdf link)
Missouri S&T   (pdf link)
UC Berkeley/U of Denver   (pdf link)
Team Alabama   (pdf link)
Team Daytona Beach   (pdf link)

Notes on the table above:
● These are 1000 ft2 homes (though some --- especially the Swiss --- included extensive enclosed outdoor spaces).
● For the Decathlon, these figures did not include transportation, student & faculty labor, and indirect costs.
● Projected for the "real world," these figures would not include land, real estate fees and taxes, utility hookups, permanent foundations.
● Northwestern, with costs 21% higher than the median, won the Market Potential contest.

Given that the Decathlon is essentially a marketing effort for the PV and electric car industry, again I ask:  Why are top universities willing to invest so much in this?  Why are students willing to donate their labor to it?  Is it a good lesson for any student to build a one-bedroom portable house for $317,000?  Is this the highest and best use of all that money?

The 2019 Solar Decathlon will again be staged in Denver.

Divine Ammunition by Al Farrow

The exhibition Divine Ammunition by Al Farrow is on display at the University Art Museum here at the University of Wyoming through December 16.  It is powerful.  I thought I would share some photos.

This is from the introductory panel:

Divine Ammunition
The Work of Al Farrow

In his meticulous miniature representations of churches, mosques, synagogues, mausoleums and devotional objects, sculptor Al Farrow (American, b. 1943) explores and challenges the relationship between religion, conflict and war. Inspired by a 1995 encounter with the reliquaries of the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo, one in particular captured Farrow's imagination. The ornate silver and jewel-encrusted vessel contained a withered finger enclosed in its original blown glass. The body part, arched as a trigger finger might be, sent Farrow's mind to racing with the incongruences of object, metaphor, and ultimately to paradoxes of religion and war, history and culture, belief and power. His artistic pursuit resulted in his series, Twentieth Century Reliquaries.

Farrow’s choice of materials ― used firearms, new and used spent shell castings, lead shot combined with bone, glass and other found objects ― balance the architectural distinctions of his houses of worship, each embedded with doctrines of its particular faith, with the aesthetic beauty of re-purposed, re-fabricated and re-finished military weaponry. Fashioned with painstaking finesse, revolvers become flying buttresses, gun barrels and trigger assemblies convert into spires and gables, and bullets of varying sizes take on the appearance of rooftop tiles or reference sculptures of saints.

In a manner of furthering his own intellectual curiosity and reflection on his subject, Farrow imagines Santo Guerro, a saint of his own invention, which is represented in the monumental The Spine and Tooth of Santo Guerro (2007) and several smaller works that incorporate human bone.

Farrow has an extensive exhibition record that includes solo and group exhibitions spanning 40 years. He is represented in prestigious collections such as the San Francisco Museum of Modem Art, San Jose Museum of Art, 21c Museum Hotel, the de Young Museum and in public and private collections in Germany, Israel, and Sweden. He lives and works in California and is represented by Catharine Clark Gallery, San Francisco.

Solar Decathlon 2017


I visited the Solar Decathlon in Denver this weekend, where 11 houses designed and built by students are on display.  Although I have been a bit critical of the Decathlon, both in The Solar House and here on the blog, I have the highest regard for the students' talents and efforts.

And this Decathlon is different, because Denver will be a bit cold this coming week during the period that the houses will be measured for energy use.  A few of the houses are clearly designed for passive solar gains. 

Here are some photos of the 12 houses.  More info can be found at the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon website.

Smart Innovative Living Oasis (SILO) by Missouri S&T
team website

Missouri combo.jpg

Our H2Ouse by University of California, Davis
team website

Davis 01 combo.jpg

Resilient Adaptive Climate Technology (reACT) by University of Maryland
team website

Maryland combo.jpg

RISE house by University of California, Berkeley and University of Denver
team website

Berkeley combo.jpg

Selficient by HU University of Applied Science, Utrecht, Netherlands
team website

Netherlands combo b.jpg

NeighborHub by Swiss Team
team website

Swiss combo.jpg

Enable by Northwestern University
team website

Northwestern combo.jpg

CRETE house by Washington University, St. Louis
team website

Wash combo.jpg

surviv(AL) House by Team Alabama
team website

Alabama combo.jpg

Sinatra Living by University of Nevada, Las Vegas
team website

Vegas 01 combo.jpg

BEACH House by Team Daytona Beach
team website

Daytona combo.jpg

While I am glad the contest is being held in a cold-climate city, to reward passive solar heating, the chosen site in Denver --- undeveloped suburbia --- is a difficult one for showcasing the event.  I noticed students walking approximately 2 miles across vacant land to their lodgings at airport hotels.  This is a typical view when approaching the event.

Overview 02.jpg

(Edited to add: This area is planned to be a Net-Zero eco-district called Peña Station NEXT.)

In any case, I liked many of the houses very much and enjoyed talking to the students.  Good luck to all of them!

Tools: The Shading Protractor

In a 1954 report entitled Application of Climatic Data to House Design, brothers Victor and Aladar Olgyay introduced the Shading Protractor.  They showed it on the cover of the report, along with a reference to neoclassical French principles of composition, and the intelligent shading of the Brazilian Ministry of Education building by Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier:

In a 2014 article**, David Leatherbarrow and Richard Wesley interpreted the graphic design above for its cultural meaning.  They wrote:

"That the Olgyays chose a Classical drawing of the profile of a human face and positioned it so that it appears to be gazing at the sun screen of a modern facade through the lens of a shading protractor represents a provocative proposition: building elements designed in precise reaction to environmental factors could become the ‘visibly evident’ elements of a new architectural style equivalent to the Classical."

Protractor-like tools had been used earlier to understand solar geometry and shading* but the Olgyays' developed "Shading Masks" --- a new method of graphic representation to understand solar gain and design proper shading.  In their 1957 book Solar Control and Shading Devices, they established the following procedure:

Step 1: To determine the times when shading is needed.
Step 2: To determine the position of the sun, when shading is needed.
Step 3: To determine the type and position of a shading device which will interfere between the sun and the point of observation during the overheated period.
Step 4: To design a shading device from the shading mask.

Olgyay shading masks 01.jpg

While the Shading Mask is a generative tool for design in the procedure above, it could also be used to analyze existing designs.  In the same book the Olgyays created Shading Masks for various case-study buildings in various locations.  Here are some samples which correspond to actual shading devices of different types:

Olgyay shading masks.jpg


As Leatherbarrow and Wesley noted, the Shading Protractor has been "long since replaced by computer simulation."

*See Tools: Whit Smith's solar tool and Tools: Libbey-Owens-Ford's Sun Angle Calculator
**David Leatherbarrow and Richard Wesley, "Performance and style in the work of Olgyay and Olgyay," arq: Architectural Research Quarterly (2014).

The Ehrenkrantz Solar Project

In The Solar House I mentioned that the Ehrenkrantz Group designed a solar house for Exxon in 1979.  Victor Lazzaro was the illustrator (see p.214).

There's more; this would be a great research project for a student.  It might make a great dissertation.  (I'll supervise!)

In 1977 Ezra D. Ehrenkrantz and Associates had about a dozen projects for the Department of Defense Solar Residential Demonstration Project.  Almost nothing about these projects is published.  Apparently, houses were built in these locations:

Naval Complex, San Diego
Naval Base, Twenty-Nine Palms, California
U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado
NAVSU Base, New London, Connecticut
Fort Campbell, Kentucky
Fort Polk, Louisiana
Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota
NETC, Newport, Rhode Island
Naval Weapons Station, Charleston, South Carolina
Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas
Fort Belvoir, Virginia

I assembled this list from various sources, but most I culled from an appendix in Don Watson's Designing & Building a Solar House (1977).  Did this project consist of one design, built in all of these locations, or many unique designs?  Were they built?  Were they innovative, technically or aesthetically?

A bit of information, and some drawings, are found on this page by architect Jacob Alspector.

I also found this 1978 report which suggests that this project (or something similar) was funded in 1974 but was mismanaged.  It does not mention Ehrenkrantz and Associates.

A 1977 GSA Memo (p. 30 of the pdf here) says that Ehrenkrantz, Inc. had been retained "to investigate the feasibility of adding a solar system to the White House."  A 2017 obituary of Stephen Weinstein said that he had worked "for many years with Ehrenkrantz Associates" and that he had "designed the solar energy system for the White House," though these two points were not necessarily associated.

The Ehrenkrantz firm is not credited in the sources I've studied about President Carter's solar White House project, but this certainly merits more investigation.

Additionally, in 1978, the Ehrenkrantz Group completed a report for the U.S. Department of Energy entitled "Cost Benefit Analysis of Passive Solar Design Alternatives: New Office Building Temperate Climate."

In 1979, Stephen H. Dalton of the Ehrenkrantz Group gave a paper entitled "Dealing with the Government: An Examination of the Legislative Barriers and Incentives to Passive Solar Design" to the 4th National Passive Solar Conference.

And in 1979, the Ehrenkrantz Group completed a report for the Department of Energy entitled "Active Solar Energy System Design Practice Manual."

When Ezra Ehrenkrantz died in 2001, he merited a remembrance in the New York Times, but it did not mention solar architecture.