No Sun at the Solar Decathlon!

Posted By on October 20, 2009

As I wrote last week, I had the pleasure of going to Washing D.C. to tour 20 student-built dwellings run on solar energy. The 20 homes, submitted by 20 colleges & universities from around the globe, were not running on solar power when I was there!

The weather in D.C. was rainy with heavy cloud cover & not a peep of sunshine (at least while I was there).  Needless to say we didn’t get to see the “solar power” in action, nor did we get to see University of Arizona’s solar popcorn popper in action.

Mid-competition, it would appear as if Team California was going to walk away as the big winner. However, Team Germany came away with the first place prize. (www.SolarDecathlon.org)

The houses are extremely small (about 800 square feet on average) and have at best 1 bedroom (some are open loft spaces). They are designed with extremely modern architecture, have solar panels (obviously) and an array of interior finishes from standard drywall to team Arizona’s water wall (http://www.uasolardecathlon.com/seed-pod/water-wall).

Innovative? Absolutely. Cost effective? Not in the least.

The most shocking thing to me about this contest was the price tag associated with the construction of these 800 square foot dwellings. Most of the entries had a price tag well north of $450,000. The most affordable price tag came from Rice University’s entry at approximately $200,000.   The most expensive home in the competition was, alas, the winner, Team Germany with a hefty $800,000 price tag (although Team Ontario was on par with team Germany’s price tag).  Quick translation for you all: this equates to $250 – $1,000 per square foot.

HOW CAN THIS EVER BE SUSTAINABLE WITH THESE PRICE TAGS???? No wonder people associate solar power & green building with high cost!

While I applaud the innovation these students of architecture applied to this project, I would like to remind their professors & teachers that we live in the real world. To be fair, these homes in the solar decathlon were all supposedly “net zero” energy homes, meaning they generate enough electricity throughout the year so as to not have a net energy bill. OK- so add $50,000 to the price tag to get all the solar needed to power this size home. Where does the other $4000,000 in cost come from?

In Cincinnati, new construction prices range from roughly $80 – $250 per square foot. And that includes the price of land (which none of the solar decathlon houses took into consideration, unless they were planning on purchasing their own little sliver of land on the National Mall in D.C…with today’s Federal Defecit, President Obama might just be willing to wheel & deal). I will concede the fact that the price I quote here would not be a “net zero” energy home, but it would be extremely efficient to run.

I can’t say this enough, so please pay attention: GREEN AND SUPERIOR ENERGY EFFICIENCY DOES NOT HAVE TO COST MORE TO BUILD!!! 

Case in point: Potterhill Homes. We can build a home that is 50% more energy efficient than the building code requires for roughly the same as you would spend on another builders’ home without these energy amenities.  And we can build this home & sell it to a buyer on land for $100/ square foot with geothermal heating & cooling.

I’m glad I went to D.C. I’m glad I got to see these homes. I’m glad I got to hear presentations from some solar experts (I’ll report more on that later). My hope is that these types of competitions will continue to take place and evolve to include more market-ready, production-ready type housing. That’s where the biggest opportunity is to really spread green & all of its benefits.  After all, the innovations are nice, but in order to make a real & measurable impact on the environment & our energy usage, we have to spread this to the masses.

Who knows, maybe Potterhill will end up in one of these national energy competitions soon….

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About the author

Carolyn Rolfes is the President of Potterhill Homes. And she's also a Rolfes - as in daughter of Dan Rolfes, the infamous Red Tag Man of Holiday Homes. So what does that say about Carolyn and who she is? Plenty. When you grow up the daughter of man who does commercials in his red underwear, you have no choice but to have a great sense of humor and humility from a very young age. Carolyn and Dan founded Potterhill Homes in 2001 and she has grown it to be one of the most successful home builders in Cincinnati. Home building is in her blood and she has a keen awareness of what consumers look for in a new home and how to deliver value at all levels. And while we don't make Carolyn dress up in green underwear for our commercials, we bet she would if we asked!

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One Response to “No Sun at the Solar Decathlon!”

  1. Being a Newbie, I’m often looking on-line for content articles which could assist me. Thank you

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About Potterhill Homes

Cincinnati-based Potterhill Homes is a premier builder of affordable, environmentally friendly homes in Greater Cincinnati. Our homes are built with traditional Cincinnati architectural styles and are perfect for both urban infill and suburban development. To learn more about Potterhill Homes,visit www.potterhillhomes.com.


About the authors

Carolyn Rolfes is the President of Potterhill Homes. And she's also a Rolfes - as in daughter of Dan Rolfes, the infamous Red Tag Man of Holiday Homes. So what does that say about Carolyn and who she is? Plenty. When you grow up the daughter of man who does commercials in his red underwear, you have no choice but to have a great sense of humor and humility from a very young age. Carolyn and Dan founded Potterhill Homes in 2001 and she has grown it to be one of the most successful home builders in Cincinnati. Home building is in her blood and she has a keen awareness of what consumers look for in a new home and how to deliver value at all levels. And while we don't make Carolyn dress up in green underwear for our commercials, we bet she would if we asked!