XXI.5 September + October 2014
Page: 18
Digital Citation

How green building is redesigning the user

Jonathan Bean

The houses at the 2014 Solar Decathlon competition, held this summer in Versailles, France, exhibited a number of recognizable design strategies: adding to the top of existing structures; assembling modular, prefab elements combining kitchens, bathrooms, and heating and cooling systems; wrapping existing buildings with a new, efficient layer. Only a few entries elaborated on the longstanding but ecologically problematic theme of the freestanding house in the unspoiled countryside. Perhaps because of a heightened awareness of climate change, several of the entrants couched their contributions in terms of disaster relief. But also on display, if harder to see, were embedded technologies intended to reduce residents’ carbon emissions. Largely, these technologies were intended not to shift energy-wasting occupant behavior, but rather to circumscribe the possibility of waste.

Solar Decathlon houses, built by university teams backed by corporate sponsors, are judged on several criteria, each with topic-specific juries. A panel of architects presides over the design award, so it is not surprising that the shapes of the houses—which might seem innovative to the casual observer—reference established examples of “good” modernist design, all hard angles and cantilevers and open plans and sheer planes of glass. One house had no interior walls other than those enclosing the bathroom, with a loft bed perched seven feet in the air. (I imagined tiptoeing around a sleeping baby when the tour guide explained the design team envisioned the wide-open house as suitable for a family of four.)

At the Solar Decathlon, technology is used to configure the material environment so we unruly humans can make only choices that are less harmful.

Homes, even those not built for solar energy competitions, are getting more efficient, but indirect carbon emissions attributed to the residential sector continue to climb. This is in part because we are using more consumer electronics. I wondered if the Solar Decathlon houses would be bristling with LCD screens trying to get their imagined occupants to change their behavior. The Japanese team did have a tablet linked to a computer that performed facial and emotion recognition (it identified me correctly as a happy 30- to 39-year-old male). But mainly the technology in these houses takes the form of innovative building materials. There were photovoltaic systems, along with tight-sealing windows and new insulation materials, such as aerogel, that lend a slim door the insulation value of a thick wall. Many teams used superefficient minisplit heating and cooling systems made by Japanese manufacturers that, together with electricity-generating solar panels, allow super-insulated homes to be net producers of energy. Broadly speaking, the design strategies that produced these homes also can be considered technologies. For example, several of the houses used the Passivhaus standard, which necessitates the use of a computer energy model during the design phase. Technology is embedded in the homes’ design and in the materials, but the goal for most of the teams seems to be to make technology invisible in the final product, so the houses feel as normal as possible.

I was struck by the split between two trajectories: one where we are using technology such as the FitBit and Lumo posture sensor to monitor everyday activity and to make decisions based on that data, and another where the expectation is to delegate human decisions to the technical realm. In the case of the Solar Decathlon, technology is used to configure the material environment so that we unruly humans can make only choices that are less harmful. Framed like this, technology is not so much the coach that keeps us in line, but rather the invisible hand behind a Truman Show existence, where our choices are delimited and determined in advance. Of course, the real state of affairs is somewhere between these two extremes.

There is a long history of demonstration homes in the traditions of both architecture and computing. What makes the Solar Decathlon houses interesting is that they follow the tradition of architectural competitions, where a chief concern is the poetic expression of future aesthetic possibilities. So they share the sense of playful experimentation that has long informed HCI, but with a very different set of assumptions about human agency. Eli Blevis has called for tackling environmental sustainability as part of “motivating the will for sustainable behaviors as part of an economically viable future, rather than by expecting such effects to be solely the dominion of legislation and public policy,” for example, by creating modular products that are easier to maintain or designing products for heirloom status that may be less likely to be thrown away [1]. Other work has sought to mitigate the effects of technology on the environment and promote sustainable lifestyle choices, encouraging alternative consumption patterns and effecting sustainable decision-making at the individual level. Eric Paulos and colleagues have explored the role of environmental sensors in casting energy use as a social and emotional problem [2]. These ideas are often linked to the goal of sustainability on the basis of what sociologist Elizabeth Shove sees as a problematic assumption: that shifts in individual attitude, behavior, and choice can create a basis for large-scale change. They should be indexed by studies that pay attention to the collective and infrastructural scales of analysis.


The consequences of using material stuff to delimit the range of human action have been theorized in any number of ways. It’s easy to be optimistic: to look at the houses in the Solar Decathlon and imagine a future where our homes save us from our carbon-spewing selves. But a pessimistic view also has utility. If the logic of the market is never-ending growth, a logical conclusion is that Google’s acquisition of the Next thermostat and push into the so-called smart home market will be a net increase in energy use. Indeed, early advertisements for home management and control systems show upper-middle-class homeowners remotely turning on lights at their second home in the interest of security, or cranking up the thermostat so it will be comfortable before they arrive. The tendency of technology to enable more consumption is a recurring pattern. A research scientist hired by Toyota recently predicted self-driving cars will increase energy use and urban sprawl, observing that “U.S. history shows that anytime you make driving easier, there seems to be this inexhaustible desire to live further from things” [3].

Rather than focusing on increasing convenience, there’s an opportunity for HCI researchers to take a note from the Solar Decathlon. Why not fiddle with the recipe up front, to ensure that the decisions that get baked in to the material structures of our homes are better ones, so that our agency when it comes to energy use and carbon emissions is not reduced to that of remote thermostat user? Current energy-modeling software programs such as WUFI Passive are clunky and difficult to use, and even those familiar with their use are suspicious of the results they obtain [4]. Now that we can control a thermostat from a smartphone anywhere in the world, HCI should take a step back from thinking about changing the behavior of users and focus instead on the decisions embedded in the “dumb” materials of bricks, mortar, and insulation. To make decisions that save energy and reduce carbon emissions, designers, engineers, and even regular homeowners need better technical support at all stages of the design process, whether remodeling an existing home or building a new one.


1. Blevis, Eli. Sustainable interaction design: Invention and disposal, renewal and reuse. Proc. of CHI 2007. ACM, 2007, 503–512.

2. Paulos, E.R., Honicky, J., and Hooker, B. Citizen science: Enabling participatory urbanism. Handbook of Research on Urban Informatics. 2008, 414–436.

3. Ken Laberteaux as quoted by Bloomberg News;



Jonathan Bean is an assistant professor of markets, innovation, and design at Bucknell University. His research deals with domestic consumption, technology, and taste.

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