Tuesday, September 30, 2008

2009 Solar Decathlon - A Case Study

TEAM BeauSoliel - University of Louisiana at Lafayette

We are honored to have been selected by the new American Village as the Solar Decathlon 2009 team to be profiled in the weekly blog! As one of only two teams in the south (Rice being the other one) we feel as if we represent not only Louisiana but the Gulf states as a whole. It is our mission to design, build and demonstrate a new paradigm for living on the Gulf coast. The BeauSoleil Louisiana Solar Home will be a regional work of architecture (representing the culture and traditions of our region,) an energy hybrid (employing passive and active systems) and a marketable prototype (accessible to a median income family.)

I invite you to visit the solardecathlon.org website to learn more about the competition and view past Decathlon homes. But the project is so much more than the competition. First and foremost, our student TEAM is learning to design and build in a sustainable way. They are becoming experts in this field. Additionally, they are learning and experiencing what integrated practice truly is. All of this means that they will be more than prepared for 21st century architectural practice and will be well-situated to be leaders in sustainable design and community design.

TEAM BeauSoleil is composed of over 70 architecture, industrial design, interior design, engineering, business, computer science and music students at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. The Solar Decathlon is a student-driven initiative. So faculty like me are here just as advisors. In future blogs, you will hear primarily from our exceptional student TEAM.

TEAM BeauSoleil also sees its mission to aggressively pursue public outreach. We are constantly presenting to various university, community, primary school and civic groups. We see it as our responsibility to educate the public on relevant issues such as sustainable design, alternative energy (specifically solar energy,) and hurricane reconstruction. As our project develops, please visit our website: beausoleilhome.org to find useful information and links.

This project is a “hands-on” project where the students “learn in the doing” as Frank Lloyd Wright once said. In University terms: it is an excellent model for service-learning and experiential learning. As such, we intend to post on this blog the revelations, successes AND failures we encounter during the construction of the BeauSoleil Home. After all, don’t we learn more from our failures?

I want to thank James Polk for his exciting initiative to profile the Solar Decathlon and specifically TEAM BeauSoleil. I hope all who read the blog will learn something or least be entertained by this unique project!

W. Geoff Gjertson, AIA

TEAM BeauSoleil Faculty Advisor

Monday, September 29, 2008

Ani DiFranco: Subdivision

Lyrics to Ani DiFranco's composition - Subdivision.

White people are so scared of black people.
They bulldoze out to the country, and put up houses on little loop-d-loop streets.
And while America gets its heart cut right out of its chest
The Berlin wall still runs down main street separating east side from west.
And nothing is stirring, not even a mouse, in the boarded up stores and the broken down houses
So they hang colorful banners off all the street lamps
Just to prove they got no manners, no mercy, and no sense.
And I'm wondering what it will take for my city to rise.
First we admit our mistakes and then we open our eyes.
The ghost of old buildings are haunting parking lots in the city of good neighbors that history forgot.
I remember the first time I saw someone lying on the cold street
I thought, "I can't just walk past here, this can't just be true."
But I learned by example to just keep moving my feet.
It's amazing the things that we all learn to do.
So we're led by denial like lambs to the slaughter
Serving empires of style and carbonated sugar water and the old farmroad's a four-lane
That leads to the mall and our dreams are all guillotines waiting to fall
And I'm wondering what it will take for my country to rise.
First we admit our mistakes and then we open our eyes.
or nature succumbs to one last dumb decision
And America the beautiful is just one big subdivision.

Watch her:


Amtrak Funding

Monday the U.S. Senate cleared the way for a Wednesday vote on Amtrak funding.

For the past few years, Amtrak - America's only national passenger rail service - has been on starvation rations in terms of funding from the federal government. Typically, the Bush administration proposed eliminating all federal funding in annual budget recommendations; Congress subsequently added back "not enough" money, but nonetheless was able to keep Amtrak afloat.

Some people say: "Why does the federal government need to support Amtrak anyway? Can't they support themselves?"

Well, in addition to the fact that no other national passenger rail network in the world operates without federal investment (or has figured out a way to do so), highways nor air travel in the United States would not exist without hefty subsidization by the U.S. Government.

Like a two-legged stool, a two-faceted national transportation system becomes exponentially stronger when a third component - passenger rail - is added to the mix. In America today, we are dangerously over-weighted on the side of automobiles. As gas prices have risen, Amtrak has had record ridership.

The current bill, which has already passed the House, funds Amtrak in the amount of 13 billion over the next 5 years. They've been operating on about a billion a year, so that's a healthy increase. But this funding only maintains the current system; an increase in routes and frequency of trains will require much more investment.

Tragically, it took a passenger train wreck in Los Angeles recently where some two dozen people were killed, to move a rail funding bill forward.

President Bush has indicated he will sign the bill in it's current form.


Consumers Among Us

This week's newspaper column:

When did the term “consumer” replace “citizen” in our national lexicon?

The press, politicians, economists, and especially shopping mall marketing professionals now routinely refer to individuals not by their race, creed, sex or nationality, but by their spending habits. When is the last time you heard anyone refer to Americans as anything but consumers? (“Citizen” sounds so Ozzie and Harriet.)

We as a society have officially defined ourselves by our collective addiction to “buying stuff,” much of which we don’t need, and by our willingness to devour natural resources, most of which are non-renewable and polluting.

Fifty years ago, it took one income to support a family with money left over to put into savings. Now, in early twenty-first century America, most families have two income earners along with some additional influx of cash - up until recently this may very well have come in the form of a home equity loan - just to get by. And savings accounts have been replaced by debt burden.

Americans now own one car per adult, have more TV’s than people, and demand houses twice the size of homes built fifty years ago. If one person on the block gets a giant SUV, everybody else has to have a bigger one.

Let’s face it: In an effort to keep up with the Joneses, Americans have embraced an unsustainable lifestyle. We’ve gone from a society of hunter-gatherers to a nation of borrower-purchasers.

But all is not lost. The road to sustainability is paved with simple acts of conservation. Even modest efforts to conserve more and consume less lead to significant savings.

Buy or build a right-sized energy-efficient home instead of a super-sized energy sucker. As Sarah Susanka illustrated in her classic book, The Not So Big House, eliminating unused space in the design of your home saves construction and energy costs without sacrificing quality of life.

Bike to work instead of driving. You’ll save on gas and be healthier to boot; studies show that much of our spending on health care, and we spend more than twice as much as any other country, is due to lack of adequate exercise.

Replace your incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, turn your computer off at night, and unplug your appliances when not in use. You’ll see a substantial reduction in your electric bill.

And the list goes on and on.

The crisis we are witnessing now in banks and financial markets is the direct consequence of conspicuous consumption run amuck. And now it’s time to pay the piper; government’s proposed 700 billion dollar (and some experts say that may not be enough) bailout plan amounts to about $7,000 per taxpayer.

In a stroke of grand irony, this comeuppance could, by default, turn the “American consumer” into the “American conserver.”

Thomas Friedman: Green the Bailout


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Excitement percolates in the design studio as architecture students and professor/architect Geoff Gjertson plan their Solar Decathlon entry.

The team is well into the process, having already submitted their design concept and design development drawings, and are now they are setting up shop in a warehouse space near campus where the home will be assembled.

But the design process does not stop once the building starts going together. In some ways, the most challenging design issues are worked out in the process of construction.

I've had clients who insisted that a good set of drawings is all you need to construct a building - "the contractor can take it from there."


Even Frank Lloyd Wright who had the brilliant capacity to envision space, form, and details was adamant that the details must be worked out as the building goes together. He would even go so far as to take his drafting board over to a building once the shell was erected and generate design details while sitting inside and observing the space as it was being constructed.

One year to go and counting. The set-up on the Capitol Mall in Washington, along with the other 19 college teams, will take place in late September, 2009.

Check back here every Wednesday for updates; the New American Village blog will be chronicling UL-Lafayette's efforts over the next 52 weeks culminating with a week-long series documenting the Solar Decathlon in Washington DC next fall.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Solar Decathlon - A Case Study

A few weeks ago, I posted on the bi-annual solar decathlon.


Today, I'm on my way to Lafayette, Louisiana to meet with the UL-Lafayette team. I'll be documenting the planning and construction of their entry over the course of the next year culminating in the set-up and display on the mall in Washington along with the other entries.

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Buyer's Market?

Common sense might have you reasoning that when the price of oil goes up, interest in alternative energies goes up. But the recent spike in crude oil prices was met by falling alt-energy stocks?



Maybe it has something to do with the uncertainty around tax credits - or the lack of them - for alternative energy-related projects. Tax incentives for the construction of energy-efficient housing and for the construction of wind and solar power plants runs out at the end of the year and, so far, they haven't been renewed.


Democrats want to rescind the multi-billion dollar corporate tax breaks for oil companies. Republicans, with filibuster power in hand, have been holding up passage of this year's energy bill insisting that the subsidies for big oil must be be extended as well.

Looks like the financial crisis on Wall Street has knocked the energy bill completely off the agenda before the October recess. So with no guarantee of tax credits, even at current levels, many projects are in a state of paralysis.

There will be a new energy bill at some time, but just exactly what that will be remains to be seen, and it hinges dramatically on who's elected - as president and in Congress.

Go out and vote.

Candidate's Auto-Carbon Footprint

How many cars do the presidential candidates have? A Newsweek article - All the Candidate's Cars - indicates that John McCain and his wife own 13 automobiles; Barack Obama and his wife own 1.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Thomas L. Friedman: The Power of Green

One day Iraq, our post-9/11 trauma and the divisiveness of the Bush years will all be behind us — and America will need, and want, to get its groove back. We will need to find a way to reknit America at home, reconnect America abroad and restore America to its natural place in the global order — as the beacon of progress, hope and inspiration. I have an idea how. It’s called “green.”



Drill Baby Drill

Some people are pitching an old idea with a new mantra.

Cameras panning the hall at the recent Republican National Convention captured an astounding scene of frenzied faithful chanting "drill, baby, drill!!!" - with xenophobic fervor.

Although there was an uncomfortably delivered and hollow seventh-grade-student-council response to calls for an all-inclusive energy policy - Palin's "like we don't know that already"line - the message was clear: if Republicans are elected in the fall, oil and gas interests will continue to drive our energy policy.

For those with short memories, that's what got us to where we are today.

George W. Bush famously stated in his January 2006 State of the Union Address that we (the United States) are addicted to oil. In a rare moment, his words rang true. So if in fact we are addicted to oil, wouldn't a policy of "drill, baby, drill" be like the drug addict who thinks the solution to all of his problems is better access to heroin closer to home?

Thomas Friedman, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times, has an interesting take on the "drill, baby, drill" chant. He likens it to a group, on the eve of the information technology (IT) revolution, chanting "typewriters, baby, typewriters."

Friedman predicts that America's economic place in the world over the next few decades will be determined by how well we innovate with green technology - not by how much more oil we can exhume from our beachfronts and natural parks.

Check out his article on the subject; it's an interesting and thought-provoking read.


The Sprawl Tax

(Newspaper Column, Sept. 15)

With all the election chatter about who will or will not raise your taxes, there’s one self-imposed tariff that few people are talking about – the sprawl tax.

Our awareness of the added costs of suburban sprawl is not unlike the boiling frog syndrome. You know the story. It is said that a frog will jump out of the pot if thrown in scalding water, but if lukewarm water is heated slowly, the frog remains oblivious to the danger and soon, without realizing what’s going on, becomes soup meat.

As our built landscape has morphed from compact neighborhoods with most services within walking or short driving distance to sprawling suburbs and commercial strips, the cost to each individual of supporting this way of building – both in tax dollars and out-of-pocket expense – has gone up and up.

It wasn’t that long ago when the norm was one car per household. One car was enough because our physical connections to the places we lived, worked, and played were human scale. Neighborhoods all had sidewalks and people used them.

But increasingly, our built environment has become disconnected from what preceded it. We build large tracts of housing with no sidewalks and no place to walk even if there were sidewalks. Strip shopping centers and big-box retailers line up end to end with parking lots cut off from the store next door. Regional K-12 megaplexes have replaced neighborhood schools in outlying parcels far away from the homes of students and teachers who drive there every day.

Like the poor yet now tender and salted frog, many of us have lived with this disconnectedness for so long we don’t even realize the economic impact it has on our lives. But now, especially with the high price of gas, the economic consequences of living in a sprawl world are looming large.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the average distance driven per household has increased from 12 to 21 thousand miles in the just the past 30 years, even as the size of households has diminished. That’s a direct reflection of our dependence on the automobile to negotiate our newly laid-out communities.

We are now a one-car-per-adult society. A family of 4 with two teenagers must own and operate four vehicles to lead a “normal” life. Sprawl, by its nature, demands that as the ante for full citizenship.

But it’s not just the price of gas. The bill to each taxpayer for longer and wider roads, expanded utilities, and storm-water management increases when the components of our built environment are spread-out and disconnected. In short, sprawl raises your taxes.

There are solutions. All over America, people are re-thinking the way we plan our communities. Neighborhoods are springing up where housing is clustered around neighborhood businesses and walkability is a prime asset

With sprawl as a new economic liability, the suburban McMansions of today may just be the slums of tomorrow.