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.”
A Q&A With Richard Levine
New technology can be a game-changer. It is how automobiles replaced horses, computers replaced typewriters, compact discs replaced phonograph records and MP3 players are replacing compact discs.
Richard S. Levine, a University of Kentucky architecture professor who recently received the 2010 Passive Solar Pioneer Award from the American Solar Energy Society, thinks advances in building techniques and alternative energy technology, combined with rising fossil fuel prices, will soon do the same for construction. I talked with Levine about that last week. Here are excerpts:
Question: Your recent work has been on passive houses. What are they?
Answer: “This is a way of building that saves 90 percent of the heating and cooling requirements of a house and somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 percent of total energy requirements. A third of all new and retrofitted buildings in Austria are built to this standard. That’s the way we’re going to be doing things in the future. And it will end up costing a good deal less because energy bills will be very low.
Now we’re building zero-energy homes where there won’t be an energy bill. So if you now have a $200 energy bill each month, you can afford a more expensive house or put that money in the bank or someplace else.”
Q: How important is good insulation?
A: “Insulation is cheap and it’s the most cost-effective thing you can do. The thing to do is build a tight house. Even the best conventional house leaks like a sieve. It’s not just around windows and doors; it’s everywhere. And you pay for this continually with your heating bills.
Another place houses leak is through thermal bridges. We think of wood as being a relatively good insulator — it’s many times better than glass — but even wood conducts a lot of heat to the outside. All of the hundreds of studs in a house are leaking heat through the wall at an unacceptable rate.
Our passive house strategy is to almost eliminate these thermal bridges with good insulation. We can build a house now that costs only a little bit more than a conventional house and uses only a fraction of the energy. There aren’t many builders who are familiar with these techniques, but they’re not rocket science.”
Q: What are the obstacles and opportunities?
A: “A speculative builder won’t go to the trouble unless they know they have a market. And the people who finance construction loans and mortgages won’t be so keen unless they know that everyone else is on board. But we are at a moment in time where with the recovery funds, with federal and state programs, with 30 percent tax credits that are available for doing this, it probably would lower the cost to below conventional.
Now that we have saved 90 percent of the heating costs, with that last 10 percent we can afford to spend money on more expensive renewable (energy) systems like photo-voltaics. The price is coming down amazingly. It would be an enormous cost if you had a conventional house, but if you only have to do 10 percent, you need a fraction of the system. It’s very affordable.
Another thing is that you don’t have to supply all of the electricity all of the time. You tie into the grid, and when you’re producing excess electricity the utility buys it back from you, and at night when there’s no sun, you buy it back from them. We’re designing houses that on a net basis go even with the utility company and you don’t have any electric use.”
Q: How soon do you expect widespread change?
A: “The way we’re building today is not the way we’ll be building in four or five years. It will completely change, which will mean that conventional houses’ value will go down significantly relative to the new way of building.
Right now there seems to be a lot of movement. I think even the homebuilders are looking for new marketing strategies. It’s the kind of revolution that once it starts, there will be some early adopters and people will see how well they work and how good an investment it is.”