Architecture Students, Don't Miss This! Dow Design To Zero Competition Has Inspired Program


Every time the Solar Decathlon rolls around I admire the ingenuity and all the green gizmos, but wonder about the applicability to real life situations. Particularly as we learn how important location and density are to energy conservation and real green design, they seem less and less relevant. When I got the press release from Dow about their Design To Zero competition, I expected more of the same, particularly when it quoted the director of Business development at Dow:

"Having this type of global collaboration and input is also a wonderful way to find creative approaches to incorporating energy efficiency and solar capabilities into a home. The aesthetics are becoming more important for consumers who want to live more sustainably, but don't want their lifestyle or home to be compromised, so it will be especially exciting to see the blend of art and science in these near zero designs."

But when you actually read the rules, it is much, much more than just about being pretty.


1. It specifies an urban site, surrounded by two and three storey buildings. It creates a real-life situation instead of the house in a field.Interestingly, it doesn't specify a geographical location, explaining:

In order to foster the international nature of the competition, each contestant (or team) will design their project for their local climate and region. The site will be a plot of land near a road intersection. The downloadable pdf file of the site model indicates the sun's noon-time direction, vegetation and adjacent buildings. The contestants must suit this site to their local climate (solar, wind and temperature range) and geographic location (soils, water availability, vegetation and cultural traditions).

2. It is a multifamily dwelling This is really unusual for a competition like this, the recognition that we just cannot keep turning out single family houses. It makes it a much more difficult problem; they are different sizes of families, too.

Include three connected residences for families of two, four and six members, respectively.... the residence for six is assumed to be for a multi-generational household, therefore including the provision that an elderly person must not be required to climb stairs.

3. Transportation and affordability matter.
3. Accommodate, at a minimum, the daily activities of its inhabitants, including sleeping, working, cooking and other functional needs. Designers should incorporate the needs and customs of their local culture in their design documentation;
a. For example, means of transportation may vary by region, meaning that accommodating transportation through design should vary by region;
b. The affordability factor will also vary by region - the design should be affordable by the average "middle-class" family within the local population;

Last but not least, they get down to energy:

7. Energy efficiency tactics must be integrated in an aesthetic and affordable manner, including both active and passive solar techniques;
8. The building should be designed with a near-zero energy usage goal in mind.

This is not a simple proposition.

The designs for this competition will be energy efficient with the potential to be developed into net-zero energy housing solutions, necessarily incorporating the usage of solar technologies. This aim must be achieved within the functional, aesthetic and economic constraints of the project. The competition organizers realize that achieving net-zero energy efficiency comes at an economic premium - sometimes at the expense of functional and aesthetic values. For this reason, the goal of the competition is finding an optimal solution that balances these requirements.

The only problem I see with this competition is that it is limited to students; this is a complex and sophisticated program that a lot of graduates and practicing architects with time on their hands (as many have right now) would love to do. Damn, it is one I would love to do.

This competition probably isn't going to attract the green gizmo gang, it requires a mix of real architectural skill with knowledge of passive and active technologies. It is tough and smart; I hope a lot of schools enter it, it is the kind of challenge that will have real application in the architectural profession of the future.

More at Design to Zero
More on design, density, and Dow:
For Saving Energy, Like Real Estate, The Three Most Important Things Are Location, Location and Location
Yet Another Study Confirms That Transportation and Location Matter Most
Minus Oil: Forget Hybrids And Solar Panels, We Need Active, Exciting and Vibrant Cities
Is Energy Consumption The Only Thing That Matters In Green Building?

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