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Green Building Curmudgeon

A Baffling Demo House

This solar home in Troy, Michigan, cost more than $900,000 to build and has raised quite a ruckus

My friend Justin Jones of Building Performance Solutions sent me a link to this article about a demonstration house in Troy, Michigan, that apparently was designed to show the public how to build a grid-independent project. After reading the article and the range of follow-up comments, I honestly don’t know what to think about it. On one hand, I (sort of) understand the value of research projects that are designed to test out theories that are not practical with the hope of gaining knowledge that leads to future benefits. On the other hand. . .

First of all, it doesn’t appear to meet the basic standards of housing—pipes that froze the first winter made it unusable. Second, it isn’t serving as an educational tool—they canceled scheduled public tours. Finally, who knows what they did in terms of tracking the building’s energy use? I have been in construction long enough to understand—and accept—that mistakes are made, but this thing seems to be approaching the status of the military’s $900 toilet seats. People are building plenty of zero-energy and net-zero-energy homes for a fraction of the cost of this. Who decided that it was appropriate to spend close to $1 million on a demonstration home like this?

The real problem

What really ticks me off is the damage that this project has caused the green building movement, not to mention environmentalism in general, by providing the right-wing nut cases with more ammunition for their “denialism.” Check out some of the comments posted to this article:

  • It is cooler NOW than it was in 1935. This is GLOBALONEY.

  • Simple, provable scientific fact…Over the last 10 years, the planet has gotten cooler…look it up yourself….global warming makes great fodder for Al Gore to get rich off of.
  • This story is the epitome of the “green” movement: good intentions, disastrous results. From DDT to Cap & Trade, this “movement” has been on a path to self-destruction. Let’s hope they don’t take the rest of us with them.

Where can we learn the truth?

CNNMoney, 24Ahead, and other sites from both the left and the right have reported on this project; however, as is typical of the current state of the news, I don’t yet feel like I have heard the full story. Maybe The Daily Show will pick it up and expose the truth behind it.


  1. homedesign | | #1

    It's The Architecture
    Carl, I enjoy all of your blogs.
    Take a look at the floor Plan for the project that you mentioned.
    The construction drawings are here.
    This was a solar decathalon entry that was transplanted to Troy.
    Just look at the amount of wall surface area to floor area ratio.
    Look at the window to floor area ratio.
    This project was doomed from the start.
    Talk about a radiator.
    I blame it on the Architecture Schools(not all but many).

  2. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Decathlon mysteries
    I've always wondered why the Solar Decathlon is fixated on off-grid homes. The last time I interviewed DOE officials on the topic, they said the reason for the off-grid rule was that it was difficult to get the Washington, DC utility to provide power on the National Mall. Imagine that.

    As a result of the off-grid rule, the Solar Decathlon ends up highlighting obscure off-grid skills like battery-system management. These are not cutting-edge homes for the U.S., since rural electrification has brought utility lines to most U.S. communities.

  3. M Heizer | | #3

    The "Duh" moment
    It's a shame that the folks in Troy didn't understand that the home was designed to win a contest in Washington, DC in October, not Troy, MI, in mid-winter! (and shame on the design team for not raising a stink before Troy accepted the house. Shipping the home a couple of times and a few thousand miles probably didn't do much for the weatherization either).

    Carl said it best: flubs like this give the "denialists" more ammunition to detract. As a side note, "detractors" better describes than "denialists": They don't have to deny anything. The more they can keep our attention on other issues, the longer they can keep the status quo (and encourage the "denialists" who think the green movement is some world conspiracy). "Pay no attention to the environmental damage behind the curtain"

  4. solarhouseparticipant | | #4

    Missing the Point
    I think you all are missing the point. This competition is one of the best opportunities presented to college students. Yes, we are students, so no, the homes can't be perfect. We're sorry. However, coming in with no knowledge on solar or any green building for that matter, and leaving pretty much experts in our systems is a pretty large feat. I'm confident that our thermal systems designer could go out and create "green" thermal systems for a living better than most mechanical engineers with years of experience.

    As for the pipes, we try to design for all weather assuming the house will be placed somewhere permanantly, but we are still trying to win a competition, so there is optimization.

    To Martin, we are now tied to the grid for the competition.

    As for the cost of the house, none of these houses cost that much to build. Our budgets are all set around a million dollars, but the houses are priced around $300,000. We do have to transport the homes to DC, pay students over summers, etc. We do try and build cost efficient buildings and do hours of work on low-tech solutions, however again, it is still a competition.

    Overall, we're trying to educate the general public on issues relating environment and green building. It is extremely hurtful to see comments like these stating that we're giving "denialists" more ammunition. We're trying our best to do outreach programs and educational solutions all the time. Our team has already reached local communities to change residential homes around campus to be greener.

    I hope you reconsider your feelings toward this project. Every year, approximately 6,000 students participate in the Solar Decathlon and I gaurantee a good fraction of those students move on to green jobs. I know I am.

    This is the best experience I've ever been given. Thank you Solar Decathlon.

  5. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    That's good news
    Thanks very much for sharing the news that this year's Decathlon will be a contest between grid-connected rather than off-grid homes. I'm glad the DOE made the decision; it makes the results of the competition much more relevant than Decathlons of years past.

    And best of luck to you and other students competing in the event. I can assure you that we wish you well.

  6. Expert Member
    CARL SEVILLE | | #6

    I concur
    Christina - I meant no offense to the individuals that put the effort into the project. As I noted in the my last paragraph, I was very frustrated with the reporting on the project, and felt like the full story was not being reported. Thankfully, you were able to flesh it out for us. Ultimately, the worst offenders here were the reporters who provided the public with a somewhat sensational and certainly incomplete story, and those responsible for the building who didn't properly manage it after it was placed in Troy. Good luck in all your future endeavors.

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