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Little samples of solar's future in home design


They sure weren't the kind of homes that we're used to seeing around here. The 20 prototype solar-powered houses built on the Mall for the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon last month were models of all that is good and green.

But they were much more: They were small. They were modern. They were portable. They were versatile. And many of them were beautiful.

I wonder if they would stand a chance in suburban markets where so much of the housing stock is cookie-cutter Colonial or gaudy mini-mansion.

The competition winner, designed by Germany's Technische Universitat Darmstadt, was a stunner, in no small part because it didn't look like a solar house. There were no impossible-to-ignore shiny solar panels attached to the roof, no appendages jutting into the sky. This house was stealthily solar, without ducts or mechanical structures announcing its techno-geek heart.

The flat-roofed, rectangular house looked like a fine piece of furniture, with the exterior clad completely in fine-grained German oak. Solar panels were integrated into the slats of floor-to-ceiling wooden shutters on the east, south and west sides of the house. On the north side, in the sun's shadow, the shutters lacked solar panels. A computer could change the tilt of the slats to catch the sun's rays and generate electricity throughout the day, storing as much as possible for use at night.

The shutters' dual purpose, shading and insulating the interior while generating electricity from the sun, reflects the twin tasks of a solar house. It is as important to conserve energy as it is to generate it. Design competitions such as the decathlon are intended to hasten the marketability and affordability of green technologies and solar-power generation.

Construction cost for the German house was as stunning as the appearance, even when you consider that it was a prototype. According to the university's Web site, materials and construction alone cost $733,444. That works out to about $917 per square foot &

outrageously expensive.

Compare that to the $448,470 cost, or about $561 per square foot, for the house built by the University of Maryland, which won second place. (If you were wondering, the German house was built in Europe, wrapped in plastic and packed into a freight container for shipping across the Atlantic. The round-trip cost was almost $279,000.)

Like the German house, Maryland's entry included some floor-to-ceiling exterior shutters, but without the photovoltaic louvers. Could such shutters be the start of a design trend?

Igniting design trends is the whole point of the competition, after all. Major home-building companies, professional consultants and suppliers were heavily involved with the teams.

Beazer Homes USA, headquartered in Atlanta, helped build Georgia Tech's entry in the decathlon. According to Tony Callahan, senior vice president for national purchasing, planning and design at Beazer, we can expect more solar energy and other green building features to appear in new homes soon, especially as energy costs rise. Fans of the center-hall Colonial will be pleased to know he thinks those features will come to market in traditional forms of residential architecture.

"It's getting more streamlined to where it's more aesthetically pleasing from a curb appeal standpoint," he said.

Callahan said he expects consumers to be receptive to solar-power features as they realize that the lower living expenses will offset some of the technology's cost. "As more adopt the technology, the price will come down to where it will be mainstream."

While solar energy would be feasible in a large house, the prototypes on the Mall were restricted to about 800 square feet, about one-third the size of the average new home.

The ones I saw had one bedroom, one bathroom and not much storage space. But many were designed with the idea that other modules could be added or taken away as the occupant's needs changed.

"You can have a 3,000-square-foot house that is solar," Callahan said, "but I think homes are going to get smaller from a green standpoint." Prices might drive the move toward smaller homes, too, according to Callahan.

There are a lot of buyers who would welcome smaller, more affordable new homes, especially if they featured the kind of design innovations on display during the decathlon.

Some of the houses had beautiful interior finishes, such as slate floors with radiant heat, tiled shower stalls, granite countertops and large, well-insulated windows. Interior spaces were flexible. In the German house, for example, a kitchen counter/table could be slid over the food preparation counter when the meal is done, freeing the space for other uses. Even the bed disappeared into a cutout in the floor. (I don't see the attraction of burying the bed, but nevertheless, it offers versatility in a small space.)

In the home built by Penn State University, a wall-sized cabinet separating the dining area and the bedroom could be moved on tracks, allowing the occupant to decide which room needed more space at the moment. This is practical stuff that could allow people to live comfortably in smaller spaces right now.

Many of the prototypes had a feature often overlooked in new-home developments: a small, private outdoor space where people could enjoy fresh air and maybe cultivate a little garden, if only in containers. It would be heartening to see more houses built with well-planned and landscaped courtyards, patios and outdoor niches such as those incorporated in the solar homes.

On the dusty Mall, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, these small outdoor gardens, some irrigated with rain collected from the roof, felt like a refuge. New homes could use more of these affordable, human-sensitive design features now, while we wait for solar technologies to become more versatile and affordable.