Sunday, 15 September 2013

The little house that could

Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China  

In one of the least heralded pieces of news, I find my faith in architecture almost restored.  Mercedes Martty, writing in Sourceable, reports that the Illawarra Flame 'fibro' house was the only entry in the prestigious competition (held for the first time outside the US or Europe), to take an existing home, and convert it into an energy efficient one.  But that did not stop the building producing more energy than it uses, by combining PV solar panels on its roof, employing a combined solar panel and air heating system, and providing for greywater recycling that uses an artificial wetland integrated into the garden, to filter the water.

Refreshingly, the project scored 957.6 of a possible 1000 points in the competition, and beat out an international field of notably more bespoke designs.  Perhaps it isn't quite as glamorously edgy as some previous winners of the original Solar Decathlon competition sponsored by the US Department of Energy. But the approach adopted by the consortium of University of Woolongong students and local trade apprentices from TAFE Illawarra, is of tremendous significance in influencing the general public.

As reported by Architectural Record magazine, the home-spun vernacular of the winning entry is anything but unsophisticated:
Aided by complex computer modeling, the Australian team pioneered the use of second-generation, poly-crystalline photovoltaic panels, compliments of their sponsor BlueScope Steel, to fashion a dual system that maximizes solar power generation efficiency. The house is not only a retrofit of an existing structure (a first in the solar decathlon), but also a dramatic turnaround for an energy-guzzling housing type prevalent in Australia that uses fiber cement sheets for construction. The team incorporated off-the-shelf systems and indigenous solutions and the result was what the architecture jurors called “modest and humble, yet innovative.”
For those unfamiliar with Australian vernacular, 'fibro' is the local endearment for a thin fibre reinforced cement sheet, with which post-WW2 austerity housing was clad.  These houses are still to be found in the outer suburbs of Australian cities, though like Levittown near NY (the famous estate of 'little boxes on a hilltop'), many have been extensively renovated and reclad.  Arguably, many contemporary MacMansions are also effectively elaborations in composite construction of these earlier prototypes.

Be that as it may, the win reinforces the importance of paying attention to our existing building stock, which vastly outnumbers the potential new build of the immediate future.  It demonstrates that even poorly performing buildings of the post-WW2 perieod are suitable for effective retrofit, and that such improvements can lead to building performance that may outperform equivalent new build.

Congratulations to the people whose dedication made it happen.
See more at:

The next Solar Decathlon is scheduled for October 3-13, 2013, in Irvine, California.
Mercedes Martty
An Australian suburban fibro home transformed to achieve net-zero energy consumption has won the 2013 Solar Decathlon China, one of the most important energy competitions in the world. - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at:
Australian Fibro House Wins 2013 Solar Decathlon China - See more at: