Using Technology to Build Greener Homes by Preet Anand

Earth RecycleWhat does it mean to be green?

Just ask Team California, a group of undergraduate students from Santa Clara University and California College of the Arts who were recently awarded 3rd place in The Solar Decathlon competition in Washington D.C. for their tremendous achievements in building a sustainable, solar-powered, energy-efficient home. Today’s post is written by Santa Clara student and Team California member Preet Anand, who has been working on this project along with his team for over 20 months.  In it, Preet describes the technologies utilized in the award-winning Refract House, the experience of competing in The Solar Decathlon, and the message driving Team California’s success: Green living doesn’t have to be a compromise.  Preet’s post, ahead.

imagesPreet Anand is a Senior Engineering Physics major at Santa Clara University.  Too curious, he has actually been in each of the three schools at SCU (Business, Engineering, and Arts and Sciences).  He was one of the core leaders and a man of many hats in Santa Clara’s 2009 Solar Decathlon entry.  He’s already looking for the next great project.  He can be reached at panand@scu.edu.

What I Learned At The Solar Decathlon

contestbeginnings066Team California at The Solar Decathlon in Washington D.C.

Opening

I came to Silicon Valley because I felt that it was the area in America where literally anything could happen.  My experience in Solar Decathlon really showed that was true.  Who would imagine undergraduate college students building a solar home that was impressive enough to earn mention in publications such as Popular Mechanics or be featured on CNN?

I was actually brought into it by Jeff Abercrombie because he knew my desire for a good project and assured me it would “not be a disappointment”.  I learned some critical life skills and met some of the most impressive people in the world.  It was a success that taught me the worth of camaraderie and collaboration. The experience was so amazing, and such a big part of me, that I already feel the void in my life just after three weeks.

What is the Refract House?

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Photo Courtesy of Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

The Refract House was an 800 square-foot solar-powered home built for the U.S. Department of Energy Competition known as the Solar Decathlon.  It was created by Santa Clara University in partnership with California College of the Arts.  Compared with a traditional green-home that normally espouses the efficient shape of a box, the Refract House is bent around a courtyard to resemble a ‘C’ shape.  Our motto in building the Refract House was that “green building is not a compromise”.  We wanted to prove that green is not synonymous with sacrifice and that a homeowner could be sustainable yet comfortable.  With the accolades we won: 1st in Architecture, 2nd in Engineering, and 3rd in Market Viability, we are sure we succeeded.

Below is a list of some of the house’s compelling features:

  • Radiant Cooling and Heating to provide a more comfortable, efficient, and hygienic home conditioning system.
  • A gray water filtration system to sustainably irrigate the landscape.
  • A pond that is a wonderful aesthetic feature but also serves for rainwater catchment.
  • Student designed artwork and a couch stuffed with denim insulation
  • Quartz countertops, back painted glass, and a re-circulation pump for a low-maintenance interior.
  • Large South-facing windows to invite the outside in.
  • A touch screen that not only allows control of the lighting, temperature, and operable windows, but also informs the user of their energy and water usage.

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Sustaining our Built Environment

The purpose of the Refract House was specifically to tackle the energy and sustainability issues provoked by the built environment most intimate to us: our homes.  In many ways, as pointed out by the renowned designer William McDonough, our homes are the embodiment of our inefficient practices.  They aren’t well insulated, so they leak energy.  They are too big, so we have to cut corners to save money.  They are built to put up, but with no thought of how to re-use materials in demolition.

lightbulbThe Solar Decathlon provides an opportunity to demonstrate a new way for homes to receive their energy.  The competition, through its ten contests, challenges universities to build homes that achieve all the tasks necessary of a normal home, but within the framework of a green, solar-powered design.  Additionally though, it mandates 9 days of exhibit for the public to walk through and learn from these homes.  It invites them to consider things they can do in their own home such as insulating their hot water tanks or investing in Smart Strips to reduce phantom loads (where electronics that are ‘off’ are still drawing power).  In our case, we had over 15,000 people walk through the Refract House.

However despite being an icon of a green building, in building the Refract House, sustainability often clashed with winning the Solar Decathlon.  For example, we were not allowed to utilize filtered graywater, water that has already been used by the home but doesn’t have biological particulate e.g. shower water, in our reflecting pool.  California, which is facing an impending water crisis, allows water that has reached appropriate cleanliness standards to be used in water features.  So, fresh water was wasted there.

Another example of the challenges of sustainability would be with the frames of our windows.  Aluminum, what we used as the frames of our windows, is a conductor, so it will transmit heat either into or out of the home.  Vinyl, another material used for window frames, is a better insulator, but it cannot be recycled.  Although it would make us perform marginally worse in a contest, we were more concerned with the life-cycle of the material and preferred to use Aluminum because it was readily recyclable at the end of the Refract House’s life.

Brought altogether, the Refract House was a spectacular demonstration of not just solar living, but of sustainable practice.  Our ability to forward this message to the public is what garnered us a 1st place in the Communications contest.

What is Sustainability? Why is Education about it Important?
Sustainability is not just about climate change, it’s about survival.  Our Engineering Manager, Tim Sennott wisely said,” we have to be smarter about the way we live on this planet. . . The way nature works is also the only way we can: zero-waste, solar-powered, and fueled by constant innovation.”  The term ‘Green’ is usually more relevant to climate change and the environment, while sustainability is a bit more encompassing with reference to surpassing resource extinction.  The two are often used interchangeably.

“We have to be smarter about the way we live on this planet”

Education is important because ‘greenwashing’ has become rampant.  Greenwashing is when companies label their products as ‘green’ just to utilize the positive publicity that is now associated with the word because of works such as ‘An Inconvenient Truth’.  We have to be sustainable with our money.  The billionaire venture capitalist Vinod Khosla speaks of this when he says that just from the perspective of carbon emissions, someone can negate the same amount by painting their roof white as they would by driving a Prius.

The change necessary to achieve sustainability won’t come from a select few; it needs the weight of everyone, especially the American consumer.  For example, people should know the difference between post-consumer and post-production recycled products.  They should be asking about the product: how much energy was used to make the product, how was it transported, can it be recycled, will it break down in a landfill or be around for 1000 years?  Do the company’s employees actually employ sustainable practice?  Most importantly, am I going to be throwing this out really soon?

For Californians, a great thing that can be done at home is simply harvesting the rainwater that hits your roof.  Just connect your downspouts to some sort of water tank; you can use that water later on for irrigation.  Be more energy efficient by ensuring your lights are turned off and your refrigerator is full (a full refrigerator uses less energy than an empty one due to the influence of thermal mass).  For a great list of things you can do at home, check out what was made by Team California at http://www.refracthouse.com/index.php/concept/what/ .  Without a doubt though, the most important thing you can do for more sustainable practice is to educate yourself and take action.

What do we have to put in?

We no longer need to be complacent to the plans of production.  Using our education, we can create change and transparency.  However, for companies that want to create this change, being ‘Green’ isn’t enough.  To achieve traction in the world market, effectiveness and economics are just as important as emotion.  A sustainable product either needs to be cost-competitive or more useful than its alternatives.   The Refract House was much more expensive than a contemporary house, coming in at about $600 per square foot.  However, on top of an owner not having to pay a power bill for the next 25 years, the house is also extremely comfortable and will save the owner time (something that may actually supersede money).

As Al Gore said, “Money or the entire World?”

As these products become more prevalent, by the nature of cost curves, their prices will further come down.  Yet to create the initial opportunity, we need either the help of honest policy or of activist consumers.  It will be a big investment for us, but as Al Gore said, “Money or the entire World?”

Whether to mitigate the impact of climate change on the world populace’s health, our crops, and animals, or simply to diversify our energy resources, there should be no doubt we need it.  After all, the sovereign investment funds that have been buying pieces of American companies are all fueled with oil wealth.

Santa Clara made an investment in the Solar Decathlon to build the future.  Now let’s bring it into the present.

Watch SCU’s Allison Kopf on The Refract House:

Watch Team California Take 1st Place in Communications:

Make sure to check out more video, including a time lapse of Team California building The Refract House, here.

For more information, visit www.RefractHouse.com and http://www.solardecathlon.org/.

Leave your comments about Team California, The Solar Decathlon, and The Refract House below!


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