Green Building

My First Project - The First Solar Decathlon #Architalks

I suspect this Architalks topic was meant to induce nostalgia - shuffle through some old pictures (remark on how young and thin we were back then), dig up fading memories, and reminisce about good times.  Why else would one want to revisit their first project? Well, I would like to talk about my first-ever design project that got built.  It was a competition project that I was involved in when I was in graduate school.  We slogged over it for 4 long semesters, including a sweltering summer of hands-on construction.

At the end of that project, I was tanned beyond recognition, had calluses that a rancher would envy, and knew a lot about energy production and efficient building systems design.  This is where my math brain really came in handy.

It takes me back 15 years to the year 2000, right at the turn of the 21st century.  I had traveled from a far away land (India) to be part of The University of Texas at Austin.  I was working on my Masters at The School of Architecture, which was one of the few schools that offered a "Design with Climate" graduate degree program.  The future was full of promise.  It was going to be awesome.

Solar Decathlon The US Department of Energy (DOE) had just announced a national collegiate competition.  Their purpose was to raise public awareness of energy-efficient design and construction as well as to foster innovation in multidisciplinary fields of clean energy.  The competition challenge was to design, build, and operate a solar powered house, completely off-the grid.  The entries would be tested and evaluated based on 10 different contests.  The criteria included aesthetics, affordability, innovation, energy efficiency, comfort, livability, commuting, etc.  They called it the Solar Decathlon.

The first-ever Solar Decathlon was held in October 2002 and teams were to assemble their houses on the National Mall in Washington D.C.  It was such a huge success that the competition has since expanded to include other countries, and occurs biennially.  The 7th Solar Decathlon took place this past month, October 2015.

Team UT We (the grad students in the "Design with Climate" program, under the leadership of Professor Michael Garrison) teamed up with Pliny Fisk and his Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems (also called Max's Pot), here in Austin.

Solar Decathlon 2002

Our design We designed a home-office that harkened to the old dog-run style houses.  Since we had to produce our own power using clean energy (solar photo-voltaics), we did not want to spend it all on air-conditioning.  Also, in the hot-humid climate that we experience in Austin, a summer breeze can do much to keep you comfortable.  So, a dog-run style breezeway created opportunities for outdoor spaces to enjoy a cool morning or evening in the shade.

The most unique feature of our design was that the kitchen/ bathroom component of the house was fulfilled by an Airstream (à la, true Austin Weird).  Brilliant, right?!  This way, we eliminated having to build one of the most complicated systems in a household (plumbing, installing appliances), we isolated the parts of the house that produce the most heat and humidity (kitchen and bath), and added the convenience factor (if you take a trip, you take your kitchen/ bath with you).

The south facing roof was fitted with 3.6KW of photo-voltaic panels that harnessed solar energy that we stored in batteries.

I was in-charge of the production of hot water.  We looked at several solar water heating options, including the old-fashioned flat plate collectors, but the numbers did not work out.  We eventually found a more high-tech product in the Thermomax evacuated tubes. This also allowed us to use hot water for space-heating.  The glass tubes with the copper pipes and filaments looked so beautiful, gleaming in the sunlight, that we decided to expose the underside and use it like a pergola.

For ease of construction, transport-ability, and easy assembly at the competition venue, the house was comprised of a kit of parts.  The layout of spaces followed a modular structural grid.  We built the house at Max's Pot over the summer semester.  We then disassembled it, and packed it all up, and sent it to D.C. in a trailer.  We had 2 days and 2 nights to assemble the building on the national mall, and have systems up and running for the week-long competition.

Sure enough (Murphy's law), we had cloudy days when we were running our tests and taking measurements.  Of course, we had taken this into account for our photo-voltaic and hot water design.

We did not win big!  But it was quite a project and quite a build-experience, not to mention a great team-building exercise.  I've run into some of the people on the team who have stuck around in Austin, but I wonder what everyone else is up to.

The future is now. It's exciting to see the competition still going strong.  Although energy-efficient design is still not mainstream in the American home market, it's encouraging to see the continuing push for new programs, building technologies, and incentives.  For more resources, check out

I for one think, we need a new energy paradigm.



This post is a contribution to the #Architalks series of blog posts.  For other blog posts on "My First Project", please click on links below.

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect (@bobborson) My First Project: The Best Project Ever Designed That Wasn't

Marica McKeel - Studio MM (@ArchitectMM) My "First Project"

Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet (@Jeff_Echols) My First Project - Again

Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect (@LeeCalisti) first project first process

Mark R. LePage - Entrepreneur Architect (@EntreArchitect) Our First Architecture Project [#ArchiTalks]

Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC (@L2DesignLLC) #ArchiTalks: My first project

Jeremiah Russell, AIA - ROGUE Architecture (@rogue_architect) my first project: #architalks

Eric T. Faulkner - Rock Talk (@wishingrockhome) The First One -- A Tale of Two Projects

Rosa Sheng - Equity by Design (@EquityxDesign) Why every project is my "First"

Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect (@mghottel) "My First Project"

Michael Riscica - Young Architect (@YoungArchitxPDX) The Early Years of My Architecture Career - My Role

brady ernst - Soapbox Architect (@bradyernstAIA) I Hate Decks

Eric Wittman - intern[life] (@rico_w) [first] project [worst] crit

Emily Grandstaff-Rice - Emily Grandstaff-Rice AIA (@egraia) Project Me

Daniel Beck - The Architect's Checklist (@archchecklist) Fake it 'til you make it

Jarod Hall - di'velept (@divelept) Define First

Anthony Richardson - That Architecture Student (@thatarchstudent) my first project

Lindsey Rhoden - SPARC Design (@sparcdesignpc)

Drew Paul Bell - Drew Paul Bell (@DrewPaulBell) My First Project

Jeffrey A Pelletier - Board & Vellum (@boardandvellum) Top ten tips when faced with a challenging Architectural project

Aaron Bowman - Product & Process (@PP_Podcast) Community 101

Samantha Raburn - The Aspiring Architect (@TheAspiringArch) 6 Major Differences between my 1st School Project & my 1st Real Project

Kyu Young Kim - Palo Alto Design Studio (@sokokyu) My First Project – The Contemporary Cottage

Nisha Kandiah - TCDS (@SKRIBBLES_INC) The Question of Beginning

The future is now with high-performance homes

If you were shopping for a new car or computer, you would check it's specs and ask about it's performance, wouldn't you?  What about when you buy a new appliance?  You expect it to not only do what it is supposed to do, but do it at a high speed/power for best fuel/energy/work efficiency.  Oh, and look good while at it. In other words, you expect functionality, performance, and aesthetics.

Why not think about your house (or your office, school, any building) in that same way?  Your house is a machine, much like your car and your computer.  You should expect it to perform well.  I know you already expect high-function and beauty.

Your expectations of your home should go above and beyond the traditional idea of providing shelter, protection, status (for some), and a sense of home.  Humans evolved well past these basic needs centuries ago when architectural expressions became the hallmark of civilizations.

Today's architecture has to go above and beyond basic needs and self-expression.  It has to leverage technology and our understanding of climate and science.  It has to invest in advancements in building materials and building systems.

We cannot design and build today like we did a 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago.



AIA CRAN Symposium - A professor, an architect, and the green police

I was in Minneapolis last week, attending the 2015 American Institute of Architects Custom Residential Architects Network (AIA CRAN) Symposium, "Elevating the Art of Residential Design and Practice". I was CRAN last year and have to say that this years talks were well-rounded and very relevant to modern day architectural practice.

I particularly enjoyed the following three lectures that discussed sustainability and green building.  A professor, an architect, and the green police presented:

  1. How the Collaborative Economy is Transforming Housing, by Thomas Fisher
  2. Integrated Green Design: High-Performance Design Strategies for Building Design & Construction, by Peter Pfeiffer
  3. A Review of Green Building Products & Systems: Green Washers Beware!, by Michael Anschel & Carl Seville

I'm told, these lectures will be available on soon.

How the Collaborative Economy is Transforming Housing by Thomas Fisher

The 30,000 ft view: Fisher's talk gave the big picture, the long term projection.

The gist: Architecture, architects, and the future - the status quo is unsustainable.  Sigh!

Tom Fisher identified the four drivers for the paradigm shift in the way we live, work, play, travel, create, learn, bank, and consume - Technology, Values shift, Economic realities, Environmental pressures.

He spoke about:

  • the current trend towards a peer-to-peer/ sharing/ collaborative economy (Kickstarter, Uber, Getaround, Lyft, Airbnb, etc)
  • Driverless cars and how that's going to change our cities
  • Millennials, who are looking to live in downtown and the inner city, because they value experiences more than the idea of buying a single family home with a big yard out in suburbia
  • the third industrial revolution of mass customization
  • our ponzi scheme with the planet

While he made some very salient points, pardon me, I don't share in his prophecy of doomsday and collapse.  I have since listened to several of Fisher's lectures (available online), and I'm afraid they all carry the same Malthusian critique and predict the downfall of our world and planet.

On the contrary, I think we humans are an ingenious bunch.  Most individuals and systems make life and our world better.  If you don't share my optimism, check out

No doubt, driverless cars are going to change our lives.  If people are willing to spend 1 to 2 hours per day driving to work now, I can't help but think that driverless cars, along with home delivery meals, and telecommuting will only exacerbate urban sprawl, not alleviate it.  Better services and infrastructure will incentivize people to live further away from town.  If the industrial revolution gave birth to cities, the third industrial revolution is going to spread population out, along with wealth.  P2P and sharing economy is leading to horizontal distribution of wealth, and generally millennials are wealthier than their parent's generation.  It may be true that millennials value experiential purchases more than material consumerism.  But, once they start having families, do you think they will want to live in crowded expensive inner cities when they have a choice to live elsewhere.  Heck, they will be wealthy enough to own secondary lakeside (or other destination) vacation homes that their driverless cars will take them to (as they relax and watch a movie in transit, no less).

Integrated Green Design: High-Performance Design Strategies for Building Design & Construction by Peter Pfeiffer

The 3000 ft view: Pfeiffer reviewed his thoughts on green building through his lens as a practical architect.

The gist: Design like you give a damn about the environment and green-by-design is more economical than green-by-gizmo.

Full disclosure - I was a Project Architect at Pfeiffer's architecture firm for more than 8 years.  Suffice it to say, I subscribe to the philosophy of green-by-design (passive first, active next), and know a thing or two about high-performance buildings.

Pfeiffer talked about the benefits of high-performance buildings.  As always touted, reduced environmental impact and consumption; but equally important, improved health, enhanced comfort, and low cost of ownership.

He also presented the green design pyramid, which follows the logic of the food pyramid.

Green building pyramid

  1. Design for Climate (the base): Design decisions and choices made early in the project (pre-design or schematic phase) provide maximum impact for minimal cost. For example - site selection, siting and orientation (responsive to climate- breezes, sun/shade, views), programming and zoning (for a/c), house sizing, etc are passive strategies for a more energy efficient design.
  2. Building Science and energy conservation: Building envelope design (roof system, insulation, wall system, glazing, etc.), HVAC specifications, water saving fixtures and appliances, energy efficient light fixtures and appliances, material selections, etc
  3. Energy production (the top):  Also called "green bling", this tier includes photovoltaic arrays, solar hot water, geothermal, and wind turbines that generate power/energy and get you closer to net-zero.  Even with the federal (and city utility) tax rebate, this bling can set you back several grand. They are the cherry on top or lipstick on a pig, depending on the project.

One would think that is an easy sell to a group of architects.  It puts more power into the hands of the architect, the inspired generalists, and positions us as leaders of green building.  And yet more builders and product manufacturers command that space than architects.

A Review of Green Building Products & Systems: Green Washers Beware! by Michael Anschel & Carl Seville

The 300 ft view: Up close look at the green building products available on the market.

The gist: Don't get caught up in the hype; know your building science.

Anschel and Seville (the Green Police duo) talked about green washing and presented the 8 sins of green washers: lack of proof, worshipping false labels, vagueness, false conclusions, hidden trade-offs, fibbing, lesser of 2 evils, irrelevance.

Building green is a matter of juggling the following: site impact, community impact, resource efficiency, water conservation, indoor environmental quality, energy efficiency, durability and maintenance, ease of use, practicality of installation, noticeable improvement, and last but not least, beauty.

If you are lost in the quagmire of green building products out there, a) you are not alone, b) look into using Pharos Lens to make more informed choices, and c) try not to get hung up on the products, unless you have particular health concerns or sensitivities.

There's also this documentary film (Greenwashers), which is now on my watch-list.

Just remember, there are 50 shades of green and you are damned if you do, and damned if you don't.



Guthrie Theatre, Minneapolis