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Solar-energy guru sees change on horizon

Richard S. Levine, a UK architecture professor, recently received the Passive Solar Pioneer Award.
Richard S. Levine, a UK architecture professor, recently received the Passive Solar Pioneer Award.

A few miles down the Kentucky River from where Daniel Boone built his frontier fort, there lives another kind of pioneer.

Richard S. Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor, was recently honored with the 2010 Passive Solar Pioneer Award by the American Solar Energy Society. It recognizes Levine's four decades of innovative work in building design and urban sustainability.

Levine, 70, developed some of the first integrated approaches for making buildings more energy-efficient, and they have been widely adapted around the world. He holds several patents, has designed award-winning solar buildings, is a frequent international lecturer and is the author of more than 200 publications.

The biggest impact of his work may be yet to come. Levine thinks rising energy prices will soon prompt America to follow Europe in radically changing the way buildings are constructed to save both energy and money.

Levine was a young architect thinking about a home for his family when the 1973 Arab oil embargo first focused America on alternative energy. He decided to use his 32 acres of woods along Raven Run Creek near the Kentucky River in southeast Fayette County as a live-in laboratory for energy-efficient design.

Raven Run House, which Levine designed and largely built himself, was unique because it combined many kinds of solar-energy technology with good insulation and design elements to minimize energy use and environmental impact. The home has been widely publicized in architectural journals, and many of its approaches have been adapted by others. (I wrote about Levine's home in January.)

Levine said his house prompted a former classmate to hire him in 1978 as design and energy consultant for the new Hooker Chemical Co. headquarters in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Before he had to leave the project because of injuries received in an automobile accident, Levine developed the basic design and systems of the revolutionary building.

The Hooker Building's double glass walls and automated panel systems used sunlight and a "thermal chimney" effect to control inside temperatures so the structure used only 12 percent of the energy required by a typical office building in that climate, according to an analysis by Progressive Architecture magazine.

"It became the granddaddy of thousands of commercial buildings that used the same principles in more and more sophisticated ways," Levine said.

America was the world's leader in alternative energy research in the 1970s, but that came to a sudden halt when incentives, subsidies and research funding were slashed after President Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. Since then, most solar innovation has come from Europe, with huge advances being made in Germany, Austria and Scandinavia.

Much of Levine's consulting work has been in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. He is co-director with political science professor Ernest Yanarella of UK's Center for Sustainable Cities and research director of Oikodrom: The Vienna Institute for Urban Sustainability in Austria. Levine also has his own company, CSC Design Studio.

Levine said one lesson he learned working in Europe is the importance of insulation. He thinks new building techniques that use insulation and better design to minimize energy loss will play a huge role in American construction very soon.

Levine's most recent design work has focused on "net zero" houses, which use innovative design and better insulation to reduce energy consumption by 90 percent. Increasingly cheap photo-voltaic panel systems are then used to generate the remaining 10 percent of power.

Because utilities allow such systems to feed electricity into the grid on sunny days and pull it out on cloudy days and at night, ongoing energy costs can be reduced to nothing, saving homeowners hundreds of dollars each month. The cost of construction can be comparable to conventional building methods, he said.

"These approaches are just starting to attract attention here," said Levine, who is still pioneering new methods and strategies. "More and more, people will see that they can't afford to do anything else."

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