Extreme customization usually goes hand in glove with award-winning architecture, but in the case of Daniel Yudchitz’s low-budget Essential House, a modest set of ready-built, plug-n-play solar panels is making all the waves. The solar-powered house has just been named a recipient of an American Institute of Architecture Honor Award, and though it is the only awardee to include solar panels in its design, the jurors enthusiastically proclaimed that “it may point the way to our collective future.” So, let’s take a look and see what we’re all in store for.
Little Country Solar House Goes to the Big City
First off, it looks like we don’t all have to move out to the country to live off the electricity grid, or at least nearly off it. Essential House is an urban version of the tiny E.D.G.E. House, an earlier award-winning project for Yudchitz and his firm Revelations Architects/Building Corporation.
E.D.G.E. (Experimental Dwelling for a Greener Environment) House was built to overlook Lake Superior in rural Wisconsin, and Yudchitz took those lessons learned to design a house that could slip into existing vacant lots in a densely packed urban neighborhood.
Essential Elements of an Off-Grid House
Essential House is located in the Rondo section of St. Paul, Minnesota. All of the appliances, including heat and hot water, run on electricity.
Helping things along are passive house features, including a south-facing solar facade consisting of a thickened concrete slab. The exterior walls are filled with cellulose insulation.
One big trade-off is space, of course, since more square feet demand more power. Essential House is small but it creates the feel of a bigger space by doing away with conventional interior walls. Of the walls that are there, most are ultra-thin and set in tracks. The occupants can slide them around and play with the space when their needs change, or whenever they start feeling a little squeezed.
Plug-and-Play Solar Meets the New Energy Democracy
Mouli is just one of a whole raft of companies that are introducing small-scale customers to the world of easy-access solar energy.
Another example is a solar company called SpinRay, which has a plug-and-play solar module designed especially for property owners with decks. It’s designed to hang off a deck railing and plug into the 120-volt or 240-volt outdoor outlets that attend almost every deck.
The whole plug-and-play solar trend is being pushed along by the Department of Energy’s aptly named “Plug and Play” solar energy initiative. Last spring, DOE announced a $5 million package of incentives for companies to design solar modules similar to Mouli’s and SpinRay’s.
Plug and Play is just one item in a set of DOE programs that focuses on reducing the “soft costs” of solar power by cutting the cost of installation, permitting, and grid connections.
That, in turn, is an offshoot of the Obama Administration’s Sunshot Initiative, which aims to achieve grid parity between solar power and fossil fuels within the next ten years.
Put low-cost plug-and-play solar systems in the same league as, say, refrigerators, and you’ve got near-universal access to the means of generating power.
Image: Courtesy of Revelations Architects/Building Corporation
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Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.