Re-engineering the Start.Home CORE for the Developing World (Stanford+Connects)

I first started thinking about sustainability when I was an undergrad at Stanford. We’d just been accepted into the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, a two-year competition in which twenty collegiate teams design and build net-zero solar homes. And I was trying to figure out how to juggle being project manager of a hundred students, convincing President Hennessey to let said students build a house on campus, building said house without letting it fall apart, then breaking it apart to ship on trucks to southern California, all the while maintaining a good GPA, making the most of the Stanford experience, finding a girlfriend, and getting enough sleep. This was a problem of sustainability.

Well, shortly thereafter I gave up on that definition, and focused instead on the sustainability of house, namely its net-zero performance. That means it produces more energy than it consumes, and while net-zero doesn’t take into account the full life cycle energy, it’s not a bad way to start thinking about sustainable buildings. As a designer what I like best is that it’s a two-way target, meaning we not only engineered a photovoltaic system to produce electricity, but more importantly we reduced the electricity consumption to begin with through a combination of a tight building envelope, passive daylighting and ventilation strategies, energy-efficient appliances, and interaction features that encouraged environmentally conscious behaviors.

What tied the whole project together was a vision for how to create sustainable homes like ours at an industry scale. We designed a CORE which integrates all the most complex systems of a home into a compact module which can be mass manufactured in a factory setting to reduce construction time and error, then shipped on the back of a truck all over the country, and dropped directly onto the construction site with all solar equipment, HVAC systems and appliances preinstalled, at which point it’s up to the homeowner to customize the architecture around the CORE to their local setting. This is what the CORE looked like as part of the competition home we designed, from the outside, from the main living space, and from the bathroom inside. We ended up doing very well in the competition, winning first in affordability and fifth overall. But the real reward was bringing the house back to Stanford and permanently installing it at Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, where the park ranger and his family are now living happily inside, and where it will remain a residence for visiting researchers for decades to come.

So I thought the story ended there, but as I spent a gap year traveling abroad, I began to develop a more global definition of sustainability, that there are seven billion people sharing one Earth, and we simply cannot exceed the planet’s biocapacity. Right now we exceed it by a lot, and guess which nations exceed it the most? This map shows nations weighted by their energy consumption, and you can see that countries like ours that industrialized on fossil fuel economies have consequently developed unsustainable consumption patterns, from the cars we drive to the houses we live in. But what scares me the most are not the oversized countries. It’s the undersized ones. Growing economies in India, the Middle East, Africa and South America, where as GDP rises, billions of new middle-class families are going to be looking to consume like we do in the states. And that’s going to exacerbate our sustainability problem exponentially.

So what can we do? Well in the Solar Decathlon we’d designed for a very specific target market, which is eco-conscious U.S. families that can afford $200/sq ft and have access to utilities, and the hope was to trickle energy-efficiency down into the mass U.S. market. But now we realize that just as important, or perhaps more important, is getting sustainability right from the get-go in the developing world. Empowering billions while making sure they don’t make the same mistakes we did.

So I’m excited to announce that some of our team is in the early stages of re-engineering the CORE from scratch for urban slums without access to electricity or sanitary systems. We’re trying to cut the cost of the CORE from $50,000 to less than $5,000 and add battery charging, and a composting toilet. Also, we have to keep in mind that sustainability extends beyond just the energy-efficiency of a home and includes civic engagement, good governance, jobs, education, all aspects of a quality of life. So I’m looking to partner with organizations like UNICEF to engage communities and come up with participatory solutions with real social impact.

See, providing these basic rights and services for the whole world is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, and how sustainably we do this will determine our path for centuries to come. So now when I think about sustainability, I think about it more as a vision. Imagine if none of us graduated from Stanford with individual degrees, but rather with commitments to solving global problems. A commitment to health, equality, protecting the environment. I think if we all look at our own careers and see what commitments we already share, we’ll find that by connecting with each other and leveraging our network, the Stanford community alone could lead the world in solving the ultimate problem of global sustainability. And that’s a vision that I’m really excited to leave you with. So I’m inviting any of you to connect with me on my commitment to sustainability, and I’d love to talk to you later today. Thank you.

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