Tom Eblen

Early solar architect sees big changes ahead for American homes

The design of Richard Levine's 1975 solar house was to take advantage of sunlight as much as possible. This included a greenhouse on the lower level. Levine said advances in insulation and solar technology in the four decades since now allow for more efficient, normal-looking houses.
The design of Richard Levine's 1975 solar house was to take advantage of sunlight as much as possible. This included a greenhouse on the lower level. Levine said advances in insulation and solar technology in the four decades since now allow for more efficient, normal-looking houses. teblen@herald-leader.com

To appreciate how much has changed in energy-efficient construction and solar power technology over the past four decades, take a look at the house architect Richard Levine designed and built for himself near Lexington in 1975.

It was one of the first solar-powered houses in America, if not the world.

The house’s original systems were experimental and primitive, and Levine and his students invented and made many of them. And because the house was designed to expose as much surface as possible to the sun, it looks more like a prototype for a space station than a typical American home.

When I visited Levine recently, he reflected on how much has changed in the past four decades. Solar photovoltaic panels have gotten smaller, more efficient, easily available and inexpensive. Insulation technology has made huge strides.

Now, for about 20 percent more money, a homebuilder can create a “net zero” house, which generates as much power as it uses with off-the-shelf technology. And this house can look about the same as any other house in the neighborhood.

But Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor and international consultant on energy-efficient design, thinks we haven’t seen anything yet.

Over the next decade or two, he predicts, there will be a revolution in both how buildings are constructed and the systems used to power them. And those changes will have huge impacts on the economy and energy utilities.

Levine was a young architect in 1973 when he and his late wife bought 32 acres along Raven Run Creek and began planning a house that would express his ideas about form and function. Then the Arab oil embargo happened.

“I had never given a thought to energy,” he said. “Then I realized that fossil fuels were not forever.”

Levine began studying solar energy and insulation, and his house became his laboratory. It combined passive solar techniques, such as an attached greenhouse and louvered windows he designed, with hand-built “active” solar thermal collectors. They heated air that was stored in bins of crushed stone below the house. Levine got several U.S. patents on systems he developed.

We're at the cusp of an incredible revolution, and no one knows where it's going to go. The utilities are scared to death. The fossil fuel people are scared to death; they know what's happening.

Richard Levine

This was before efficient and affordable photovoltaic solar systems were available to convert sunlight into electricity. And while Levine’s house was well-insulated for its time, it had nothing like the insulation available today.

While Levine’s design greatly reduced his need for utility-generated power, it didn’t eliminate it. But by 2009, the cost of photovoltaic solar panels had come down so much that he added a bank of them on a nearby building to make his house net zero.

In the five years since then, he noted, the cost of solar panels has fallen by another 80 percent. Solar panels have gotten cheap, Levine said, and enormous progress is being made in the cost and efficiency of battery technology.

“We're at the cusp of an incredible revolution, and no one knows where it's going to go,” he said. “The utilities are scared to death. The fossil fuel people are scared to death; they know what's happening.”

Levine said some of the most interesting applications of new energy-efficient construction techniques are being used in affordable housing projects and public buildings. For example, Kentucky built some of the nation’s first net-zero school buildings. Those techniques will soon move more into the regular marketplace.

Levine and his company, CSC Design Studio, have done a lot of work in Europe with so-called “passive” houses, which are super-insulated and virtually air tight. These use construction techniques that eliminate “thermal bridges” between inside and outside and use new materials, such as sheeting, coatings and tapes that allows vapor, but not air, to pass through. Passive houses require little energy, and heat-exchanging ventilators keep them from being stuffy.

The future, Levine thinks, will be a combination of passive house techniques and solar power. The economics are so favorable, it is only a matter of time before consumers start demanding them and developers learn the skills to build them.

Levine also predicts lenders will soon roll the extra cost of these building techniques and solar systems into mortgages, because they easily pay off in reduced energy consumption, and therefore greater ability for a homeowner to pay a mortgage.

Another reason he thinks this approach is inevitable is because it appeals to the traditional American desire for self-sufficiency. And once battery technology gets better and cheaper, many Americans will be able to disconnect from the grid and kiss the power company goodbye.

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