The Solar Decathlon Europe – An Exciting, if Wet, Experience

The Nottingham H.O.U.S.E

The experience of serving as a sponsor of the University of Nottingham Solar Decathlon H.O.U.S.E. is one, I am sure, none of us who were directly involved will soon forget.

This was the first Solar Decathlon held outside of the United States, and Madrid, Spain served as the host. The University on Nottingham was keenly interested in participating and sought a sponsor who manufactured all the primary components they would use in the house. Saint-Gobain was the obvious choice, given the scope of our interior and exterior products that create and promote energy efficiency and sustainability. The Saint-Gobain companies that participated included Isover, British Gypsum, Saint-Gobain Glass, Solaglas, Ecophon , International Timber, Pasquill and Greenworks (Saint-Gobain Building Distribution). The Nottingham H.O.U.S.E design utilized an L-shaped, modular design that could be worked into rows, terraces or stacked.  The Team’s goal was to design and build an affordable, energy efficient house that would appeal to the general population.

During the construction week in Madrid, the H.O.U.S.E team lost several days due to the worst rain storms to hit Madrid in 50 years. The H.O.U.S.E. location was in the lowest part of the Villa Solar, below the water table, and the rain just poured down onto the site while construction was underway.  As the crane was placing the house modules, it slipped and significant damage was sustained.  There was no way to repair the damage to the house completely so the students made some adjustments in order to meet the construction deadline to compete.  While challenges such as this were a learning experience, the judges did not take the adversity into consideration.

The Nottingham team was the youngest team in the competition, with second and third year students while the other teams were fourth year or graduate students. The team that won, Virginia Tech, had participated in two previous Decathlons with the same house.  By perfecting their design and incorporating the feedback they received, they were able to return and win.

We are proud of what the students we sponsored achieved in the design and construction of the house, how they worked through the challenges and emerged able to compete.  They received second place in the sustainability section and were voted the most livable house by the visitors to the Solar Decathlon.  Several Spanish developers, as well as English developers, are interested in using the design for future construction. 

As part of our sponsorship, Saint Gobain provided training at our facilities to teach the students how to construct the house using our products.  This project wasn’t just about the H.O.U.S.E, it was about creating an energy efficient concept that could be mass produced by builders, the training and the solid hands-on skills the students gained that will set them apart when they enter the workforce. 

As for future participation in the Solar Decathlon, the expertise that was gained by participating would be in vain if the University of Nottingham did not participate in future Solar Decathlons especially since the same students could perfect the H.O.U.S.E which was very well received by developers and potential homeowners – the audiences that really count.

Pay Now or Pay Later – Constructed Space per Person

Lucas Hamilton

I recently read a report in the Department of Energy’s 2009 Building Energy Data Book that referenced the amount of constructed surface area per person around the world.  The United States is second only to Canada in the amount of constructed space per person – the U.S. boasts 3,000 square feet per person. This concept of constructed space per person includes home, work, shopping centers, sports complexes – any constructed buildings where we live, work or play. 

This is far more than most of the world. Comparing the United States to the United Kingdom, for example, the average English citizen uses approximately one-third the space of Americans.  Americans have come to expect this right-of-space. But there is a price to pay if society continues to expect large buildings. If the goal is to move toward net-zero buildings we are going to have to become very creative to overcome our need for space.

One example to consider along these lines is the issue of rain water run-off. For the most part, constructed space represents hard surfaces which prohibit rain water from being absorbed into the ground.  This not only overloads our water treatment and sewer systems, as we discussed in a previous blog about Live Roofs, but it effects the sequestration of carbon dioxide. 

The new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes program sponsored by US Green Building Council is penalizing homeowners for having more space in their home than they need.  However, if a 4,000 square foot home for two people is still desired, the LEED program will allow it but will require more energy efficiency components in order to certify the home. This seems reasonable to me.

If Americans wish to build large spaces, designers and developers are going to have to work harder to offset the impact on the environment.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation

Multi-Comfort House Competition – Global Event of a Lifetime

Philadelphia University students (left to right) David Cremer, Daniel Hitchko and Christopher Anderson

I had the wonderful experience of accompanying the winning architecture students on a trip to Innsbruck, Austria to compete in the Isover/CertainTeed Multi-Comfort House competition sponsored by Saint-Gobain as the U.S sponsor and partner with Philadelphia University.

This competition started in 2005 with nine countries participating. There were now 18 countries represented, 32 universities, 46 projects submitted and 150 participants.  In some cases, submitting universities brought their top three projects. In many universities, the Multi-Comfort House competition is incorporated into the third and fourth year architectural program.

I must admit that since this was my first experience with the International Isover/CertainTeed Multi-Comfort House finals, I was concerned that it would be more like a social event than a serious competition.  I was pleasantly surprised to find I was wrong. The level of professionalism on the part of the competition organization and the high quality of the projects presented by the students was eye-opening. 

The subject of this year’s competition was the renovation of a five-story warehouse in the Parisian quarter of Pantin. Industrial building renovation to Multi-Comfort House standard was a tough challenge, but participants had the freedom to propose any function for the building. The projects ranged from a hotel, a library, a textile factory, a museum, a shopping mall, a student residence, a vocational training center, a meeting place for young people, to name a few. All were viable and of the highest quality in terms of execution, attention to detail and compliance with Passive House standards.

It was fascinating to see the range of design from both a technical as well as a romantic/creative aspect.  The work that was presented – the concepts and elaborate ideas – was surprising.  The level of knowledge and creative solutions with regard to air-tightness in buildings, increased insulation, moisture management and zero-energy applications employed in the designs were encouraging since these are the architects, designers and engineers of tomorrow.

From the students’ perspective, what an extraordinary experience to meet with global counterparts and exchange ideas, share successes and develop professional contacts.  Two of the American students had never been to Europe; this was life changing for them.

An added benefit for the students was the opportunity to meet and hear from Professor Wolfgang Feist, the founder of the Passive House movement.  He even incorporated comments about the designs that they presented and the techniques employed by the students.

The winning designs came from Austria, Finland, Serbian and Germany, but all of participants were fantastic.  The time they have invested in broadening their knowledge and practice of sustainable design principles, will certainly pay off in their professional life.

I am looking forward to supporting next year’s competition. The finals will be held in Prague and my hope is that we can begin to reach out to other American colleges and universities to participate in this program.

Cautionary Tale on Installing Vegetative Roofs


While presenting a workshop last week in Northern New Jersey hosted by Grubb & Ellis, Inc., a property management firm, I engaged in a conversation with an architect about a learning experience he encountered while installing a vegetative or live Roof.  

Vegetative roofs have been utilized in Europe for about 25 years and are gaining popularity in the United States especially for commercial buildings. From a building science perspective the thing I like about live roofs is the natural property of plants when it comes to resisting solar heat gain from infrared radiation.  The albedo, which is the surface reflectivity of the sun’s radiation, plays a large part in the benefit of a live roof.

On the hottest day in the summer, the average surface temperature of living plants in direct sunlight is only two degrees greater than the temperature of the ambient air. If you measured the temperature of a dark surface it could be as much 20 to 30 degrees higher than the ambient air.  Since plants never get more than two degrees hotter than the ambient air it makes them the obvious cool roof. 

While we are seeing an increase in cool roofs in building design, we can’t lose sight of common sense.  Now back to the architect and his tale.

This architect explained that the construction on the project was delayed which meant that the vegetative roof was installed in the summer.  By the time the plants arrived to be installed on the roof structure it was July, the hottest and driest time of year in northern New Jersey.  As a result, the first three months of the roofs’ life required watering.  The architect never imagined that he would have to water his roof for three months.

The designers and contractors never considered in the scheduling that the vegetative roof would need support if installed at the hottest and driest time of year.  The installation of the living component could have been delayed to more appropriately suit the environmental conditions but the benefit to the building of the vegetative albedo would not have been realized when it was actually needed the most- in the mid and late summer. It’s a great example of one of the many trade-offs we have to evaluate when building sustainably.  


Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation

Building Information Modeling (BIM) the Next Frontier

Douglas C. Gehring

We all want and need to work smarter and quicker.  A fast-growing trend for building design professionals is the incorporation of Building Information Modeling or BIM objects as a design tool. Similar to today’s film directors moving from 2D to 3D movies, BIM objects are the next generation of drawings and allow building and design pros to easily visualize projects, improve design quality, reduce change orders and improve project scheduling,

BIM enables a project to be shown in a three dimensional model and includes all the additional properties that go along with it – information data sheets, websites for the products in the model and specification documents. It becomes a one-stop-shop for all the resources you need for the design. For architects, BIM is a productivity enhancement tool.

The use of CAD giving you a two-dimensional view could not, for example, show if there was a wall inadvertently intersecting with an HVAC duct. The three dimensional BIM model shows details such as this which saves designers from costly errors. The BIM drawings get sucked into this building information model for the whole project and can automatically generate plan elevations, sections, and other details so when the designer wants to change one element, it changes it within the whole model.

BIM is a growing industry and from its positive reception by the design community is not going away.  There is still standardization that needs to be done with the tool but it is quickly becoming an accepted part of the design process. Architects and general contractors are the largest forces out there pushing for BIM.  Manufacturers will most likely need to provide these models more and more once professionals see the value of BIM.

BIM also includes building performance software, sustainability modules and other efficiency modules evolving frequently to meet the needs of sustainability initiatives in the building community.  BIM objects are available through Reed Construction Data’s proprietary SmartBIM Library™ as well as many product manufacturers’ websites.

Two states, Wisconsin and Texas, have adopted BIM as the design tool of choice for all state projects. When states begin to adopt these tools you know that growth for the tool is imminent.

Now if we could only get James Cameron to create a few Avatar BIM Objects.

Douglas C. Gehring, P.E., CSI is director, marketing technical services for CertainTeed Gypsum

Symposium to Connect with Architects and Designers is a Slam Dunk

Eric Nilsson

Eric Nilsson

Building products manufacturers had a rare opportunity to participate in a symposium that really hit the mark.  The event was sponsored and organized by Tom Miller of Miller Brooks  and was recently held in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

I have been to dozens of these types of events over the years and often come away empty handed or feeling I have revisited information I already knew.  But this event was first class, not only in the quality of the content and the interaction between the speakers and the audience but from the venues.  The opening event was held at the Columbia Club, which was established in 1889 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This set the tone for the event with its elegant architecture, design and its rich history. The symposium was held at the NCAA Hall of Champions which honors all the championship teams of the NCAA collegiate athletics. This was a championship event in a championship facility. It was the perfect venue.

The keynote speaker was Rex Miller who is the Thought Leader for Mindshift, a consortium within the commercial real estate business working toward industry transformation and author of The Commercial Real Estate Revolution.  He discussed today’s economic climate and the rapid changes taking place in society and the business world.  For companies to survive, they must learn the best ways to react to these changes.

One of the concepts he discussed was reverse mentoring.  Knowledge is no longer in the hands of the seasoned professionals.  Knowledge is instant and it’s in the hands of the young. We need to allow our younger employees to bring new knowledge to us especially with regard to engagement and interaction with our changing audiences.

The second part, and the most valuable to me, was a panel of experts in design and architecture, both professionals and providers to the professionals, who fielded questions from the audience. This was a very lively discussion with very valuable content. They were also able to voice their opinions openly about how they want to interact with manufacturers. One key message I came away with was the more expertise that a sales representative can deliver in the form of answers to questions or problems that will save them time – that has real value to them.

At the end of the day it was clear that while this event may have looked liked a thousand others, it was truly one of a kind.

Eric Nilsson is Vice President, Corporate Marketing for CertainTeed Corporation.

A Look at One H.O.U.S.E. of the Future

At the recent Ecobuild Expo and Conference in London, England there was an element that I thought merited mention:  The University of Nottingham entry to the Solar Decathlon Europe.

University of Nottingham Solar House at Ecobuild

University of Nottingham Solar House at Ecobuild

In June 2010, Madrid, Spain will host the International Solar Decathlon Europe. This event alternates years with the U.S. Solar Decathlon held in Washington, D.C.  University-based teams will travel to Madrid and reconstruct their solar designed houses. The entries are judged on 10 separate environmental areas, including solar systems and sustainability, market viability, and architectural merit. The University of Nottingham team dismantled and reassembled their solar house on the show floor at Ecobuild. It was exciting to see what they accomplished.

The Solar Decathlons – International competitions for colleges and universities to design and build the most effective and energy efficient house – are making great strides to prepare future architects to find the best solutions for creating sustainable homes, focused on solar power.

A key objective for the students was to ensure that the Nottingham H.O.U.S.E. would comply with the U.K.’s code for sustainable homes. The Code covers nine sustainability issues such as responsible sourcing of materials, limiting consumption of drinking water, health & wellbeing and of course Energy & CO2 emissions, the latter being the most important and the one that will be progressively converted into Building Regulations towards zero carbon. The students also have to live in the house to demonstrate its effectiveness and energy efficiency.

Saint-Gobain U.K. has partnered with The University of Nottingham, not only with many of the products but also with technical expertise.  This home meets both Code Level 6 of the code for sustainable homes and Passive House standards which, I am told, is an industry first for the U.K.

This type of partnering is a wonderful way to provide the designers and innovators of tomorrow with real world experience working with professionals who are currently designing and perfecting products for the marketplace. 

We should all take a closer look at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon when it comes around again in October 2011.  From what I saw of the Nottingham H.O.U.S.E., it is well worth the time.

Eric Nilsson

Eric Nilsson

Eric Nilsson is Vice President, Corporate Marketing for CertainTeed Corporation.

Shoving Green Circles in Brown Squares

Lucas Hamilton

Lucas Hamilton

At an event I recently attended for manufacturers and design professionals, I had the pleasure of hearing a keynote speech by Marvin J. Malecha, FAIA, outgoing President of the American Institute of Architects and Dean of the College of Design at North Carolina State University.

One of the points that really struck me in his presentation was the idea that we are trying to shove green pegs in brown squares.  We are developing band-aids for problems in existing structures based on our current technologies.  How can we take product “A” and massage it a little bit to solve problem “B?” The fact is, you should start from scratch to get rid of problem “B.”  Don’t solve problem B, get rid of problem B.

In other words, what we are doing is slapping bigger fins on the Cadillac. What we need to do is get away from that Cadillac model. Maybe it’s not about improving the performance of our existing designs; it’s about completely rethinking our designs.  Do we really need to have green high-rises? Maybe we don’t need high-rises. Don’t get me wrong, Malecha isn’t suggesting we get rid of high-rises.  He is suggesting that we are stuck in a rut of thinking and trying to solve our existing problems when maybe the long-term solution is to start from scratch on basic issues such as:

  • How we build buildings
  • What we think of our buildings
  • What we think we need in our buildings

Consider, for example, the internal combustion engine.  No one in their right mind would set out today to design the internal combustion engine we have in our cars.  It is ridiculously complicated. We have gotten to this complexity by continuing to solve or improve a bad design and pushing it down the road as opposed to getting rid of the internal combustion engine and going back to the electric motor. Similarly, this is how we are approaching sustainability.

According to Malecha, the present Green strategy is to fit new products and systems into present design. Design must change completely to truly move forward. Even in the most corporate environments, the free agents will win and rule because they can re-invent.  Keep learning, keep being creative and keep moving.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications at CertainTeed Corporation. 

Reaching Abroad for Sustainable Solutions

Hello, my name is Eric Nilsson and I am Vice President, Corporate Marketing for CertainTeed Corporation 

ENilsson_Who says “there’s no such thing as a free lunch?”  Well, I am here to tell you that there is—bu you have to be in the Philadelphia area to take advantage of it.

At CertainTeed, we are excited to be members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), having the opportunity to interact with the design community and to sponsor the upcoming, complimentary luncheon at the AIA, Philadelphia Chapter, featuring David M. Adamson, a consultant in sustainable construction from England on September 29, 2009.

Adamson, a Professor of architecture at Cambridge University, has been involved with sustainable design and life-cycle analysis in both his academic work and as a consultant for the British government. His expertise is on the economic value of sustainable design building practices as a matter of public policy. For example, he is a member of a team that advises Cambridge University on the design and construction of new buildings, and making sure they are built according to sustainable design standards. He has also worked as an advisor to the British government doing a similar task, but on a national scale.

CertainTeed president and CEO, Peter Dachowski, invited Adamson, a long-time colleague, to stop in Philadelphia prior to another engagement in the U.S to present “The Shift to Whole-Life Value in Building Procurement Principles: A View from the U.K.” One of the main themes of the talk concerns the change in the underlying cost-benefit analysis that defines how government agencies and other public institutions plan, design and construct buildings.

The policy has shifted from merely reducing costs to providing maximum value for whatever dollars are spent. This is what the shift to whole-life value means: when a whole-life cost-benefit analysis that includes environmental costs is performed, it is seen from a public policy perspective.  A sustainable building is the best value for both the occupants as well as for society at large.

This is a great opportunity for the design community in Greater Philadelphia to learn about the efforts taking place in the U.K. with regard to sustainable design. You can register for the luncheon by phone 610-341-7298 or email

Pushing the Boundaries in Ceiling Design

Hello, my name is Jim Church and I am the Sales Manager – North America for Decoustics Ltd., a division of CertainTeed Ceilings.

ChicagoArtInstituteLight and acoustics are certainly key elements in a building project, but when you are showcasing valuable artwork, they are most critical.

The Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop along with architect of record, Bob Larson, Interactive Design, Inc, Chicago provided a special opportunity to expand our capabilities as a ceiling manufacturer. The new wing consists of six separate, distinct exhibit spaces that encompass 264,000 square feet. The innovative use of ceilings and wall panels for optimum light and sound absorption in the design created a unique challenge for our team.

This project required the use of a custom manufacturer to develop solutions for designs that pushed all boundaries of the commercial ceiling industry, specifically in the areas of size of panels, accessibility and translucency.

The project design called for the creation of ceiling panels 40% larger than the standard panel (over 14’ long.) A requirement for accessibility forced new thinking in what was possible with panels of that size. 

Vellum (scrim) translucent panels were the fourth of a four-part building design that Renzo Piano developed to bring natural, north light into the museum’s main galleries. The flying carpet structural canopy, the glass roof, an ultraviolet layer and then Decoustics vellum panels completed this design.

After months of product development we were able to create solutions that tackled the unique engineering aspects of stretched vellum, aluminum frames, unique invisible stabilizers, colossal panel sizes and accessibility.

The design of the exhibits required meticulous installation to ensDecoustics ceiling in Chicago Insititute of Arture proper alignment of the ceilings with the walls. The Claro® ceiling panels installed in the building offer superb sound absorbing properties and provide for the infiltration of natural light without exposing conduit, piping and mechanical systems installed above the ceiling panels. Quadrillo® ceiling panels were installed in the main conference room, bringing a warm aesthetic to the modern design. 

No other manufacturer in our industry has the product range, engineering capabilities and proven accessible ceiling systems to have tackled such a project.

This project has received a great deal of attention including a large article in Architectural Record and a video from a recent visit to the museum by McGraw Hill Construction.

It was an honor working with Renzo Piano and Interactive Design on such a prestigious project.