What should realistic and affordable — but still beautiful and cool — solar homes for the mass market look like in the future? If the Solar Decathlon team from the Vienna University of Technology has anything to say about it, they’ll be modular social creatures capable of adapting to favorable and unfavorable climates.
Team Austria emerged victorious from the Solar Decathlon earlier this month. The team’s sustainability-minded students designed, fielded and crowned their LISI house winner of the Department of Energy’s 2013 Solar Decathlon. More lengthily known as Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation, LISI’s debut in our government’s mostly American competition was an international object lesson in forward-thinking housing and marketing.
As I explained earlier this month in my 2013 Solar Decathlon field report and its photovoltaic photo gallery, Austria’s LISI felt like a high-end housebox with recoverable space wherever one turned, nicely in tune with its exterior and interior territories. I recently corresponded with Team Austria’s architect Philipp Klebert and Sebastian Ortner, who explained how LISI came to be — as well as where solar housing needs to be for coming generations locked in global warming’s crosshairs.
Scott Thill: Congratulations on your debut victory! What do you think helped you stand out from the field?
Team Austria: We had experts in all required fields, be it in media and communications, architecture, market appeal or engineering. Scoring between first and fourth in several categories helped Austria stay on top, and ranking first in the communications category was especially satisfying. But it was not one individual’s work that made the difference, but the effort of the entire team.
ST: LISI merges inside and outside living, and is made entirely of wood. Is there a philosophical dimension to these choices that offer guidance to both students and industry toward more sustainable living?
TA: Absolutely! We really tried to consider all aspects of building a house. It’s not only about operating your home in an efficient manner, or being sustainable in your energy consumption. It’s also considering the energy and emissions that go into all steps of a building’s life-cycle, including construction.
ST: Are our current levels of global production and consumption in the housing sector sustainable?
TA: There has been a trend towards more energy-efficient and sustainable homes, since products and their technologies have become more accessible and affordable. We are obviously thrilled about this, and really encourage everybody to participate in this great change that is happening. However, globalization has also seen people moving away from their traditional homes, which are based on optimized adaptation to their natural surroundings. Instead, they aim for foreign designs which appear exciting to them. While we feel that cultural and technological exchange between countries and peoples is pivotal in dealing with so many of today’s environmental and sustainability issues, it is important to make smart,educated decisions about which newly accessible technologies to integrate in our lives.
ST: Your perfect scores on energy balance and hot water helped you to the win. What solutions to these global concerns did you learn through the challenges?
TA: It is important to understand that when it comes to energy production, meeting net-zero standards in one’s own home is important, yet not sufficient. During the day– when the house is producing energy — we can feed the excess energy back into the grid and support commercial buildings and industry infrastructure alike. Therefore, energy balance should not be seen on a single, individual scale, but rather in an urban context of interconnection and exchange.
ST: As a microcosmic look at solar housing innovation, what do you think the field of competitors showed that could prove both helpful and accessible to the global population?
TA: The enthusiasm the teams have shown presenting their new technologies, innovations and concepts to the public was quite visible throughout the competition. Very often, investing in new products or systems can be connected to psychological barriers and lead people to decide against investment. Team Austria, as well as all our competitors, showed finished buildings which truly worked and performed during everyday tasks. This helped with any breakdown of stereotypes visitors might have had. The integration of innovative and renewable technologies offers not only a potential for sustainability, but also one for financial gains in the industry. Higher initial investment costs do pay off, if one chooses not to be shortsighted.
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