Derek Ouyang, home improver with a green goal
Welcome to the really, really green ‘hood — 20 demonstration houses in Irvine’s Great Park. Irvine is the cradle of the designed neighborhood, but not like this. These homes were designed and built to compete in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, which ended Sunday. The 20 teams came from universities around the world. Stanford’s, which placed a respectable fifth, was led by Derek Ouyang, who grew up in Arcadia and is now a newly minted graduate with a double major in architectural design and civil and environmental engineering. The team’s idea was an accessible, technologically alert house that puts the power to save power in the hands of the people who live in it.
The Austrian team won; what does your team take away from this two-year competition?
We did very well on affordability, market appeal and engineering and have received great response from the public. The three-person jury seemed to favor ultra-modern, formal architectural moves [over] affordable and practical design. In my opinion, great architecture is better determined not by a panel of three architecture judges but by 10,000 people enjoying our home. We are so proud of our accomplishments as a first-time team. We’ll take this enthusiasm and hand it off to the next generation of Stanford students for Solar Decathlon 2015.
Describe your team’s design.
The house has many [housing developer Joseph] Eichler influences: a large band of northern clerestory windows, large 45 foot by 15 foot great room, same-size outdoor deck, one bedroom. The “core module” contains kitchen, bathroom, mech[anical] room, laundry closet. There is metal siding on the core; the rest of the house has reclaimed redwood siding and interior Douglas fir. We noticed people had bad connotations about modular homes — that they’re cramped. Our house is 1,000 square feet, but I tell you, it feels like 2,000.
You undertook this project partly out of guilt at having been, to use your word, “clueless” about energy consumption.
I wish it hadn’t taken me until now to realize how much I waste energy on a day-to-day basis. All the way through college I was leaving my computer on throughout the night. Who knew such simple choices would have such a big impact?
A light switch [in the Stanford design] glows a color that represents the amount of electricity being used. If it’s yellow, and the light’s already off, you’ll remember, oh I left my computer on; it’s in sleep mode.
Another thing is a Web app — the core has the ability to monitor electricity and water use. It doesn’t force you to do anything, but it gives you enough data to understand how you’re using power and water.
Technology isn’t really empowering people to make decisions. As a kid, I used to have to memorize directions; now people can’t get back home from where they were [without GPS]. You let technology do things for you, or there’s an internal motivation to behave. We’re trying to solve the problem but not taking away people’s ability to do it themselves.
Did you always know this was what you wanted to do?
I loved to work with my hands. I loved Legos, K’nex, all those things. I loved to put things together. I loved even more to break things apart and see how things worked. I’d get a new game console, and a couple of weeks later it’d be broken into pieces. My favorite thing was a Rubik’s Cube. I absolutely loved trying to solve it as fast as I could. One day I was going so fast that it broke, and I suddenly realized [with] all the different axles inside it, it becomes so much more fascinating an object.
How did all this turn into the Solar Decathlon project?
As a freshman I started to gravitate toward buildings, both from an engineering and a design standpoint. People design homes without energy in mind. Maybe that wasn’t a problem 100 years ago, but we’re inheriting it now. I saw the project as a way to educate people. The whole team rallied around that: Let’s not just do it for the competition; let’s try to solve an industrywide problem. Let’s show the public the commercial viability of this, that this isn’t just a one-time house.
You want people to be able to order a kit for an energy-efficient house from Amazon, the way people ordered house kits from Sears.
Every time we try to design energy-efficient houses, it starts from scratch. But you can go too far in the other direction and you get cookie-cutter homes. We thought there’s a way to do a middle ground [with a “core module” and various choices for the rooms built around it]. I really hope that this catches on. I want future kids to be living in homes like this where they could know that their Nintendo is sucking this much energy at night.
One of our Palo Alto mentors said he had to work with 60 subcontractors to get the [energy-efficient] home he wanted. The average guy doesn’t have the time for that, the money, the patience, the knowledge. We saw the [competition] as a way to give people what they already want but can’t have.
Homes nowadays [are] like a grocery store where there are no labels, no price tags. You just grab stuff and they give you the bill at the end of the month. That’s your electricity and water bill. That’s how I grew up. It’s so ingrained that you just plug in and you’re getting something “free.” So we want people to be smart about that.
You build yourself a house, that’s the beginning of your journey with energy. And so many decisions matter there. Where I grew up, it was not even a matter of thought. I grew up with the sprawl, the mall.
I wish I lived in a city. I wish I were closer to downtown. I think the feeling that you’re part of a space everybody shares is a good step toward conservation.
What does the building industry think of this competition?
We’ve gone to a lot of builder shows and energy-efficiency shows and showed our concept and gotten great feedback. There’s a lot of [modular, energy-efficient design] happening in the industry already, but they’re not approaching it the same way.
A couple of months ago, a company sent me an email; they claimed we were infringing on their IP [intellectual property] and demanded that we credit everything to them. [The representative] started to contact the university, the Department of Energy, all the other teams and asked them to protest our [entry]. He emailed our sponsors. I ended up looking at his patent on Google and it said specifically how it was different [from our design], and the patent wasn’t even approved. It was an eye-opener, but it also let us know people really care about what we’re doing.
Would you live in your house?
I have already! We’ve spent nights there.
Every team gets to decide where the homes go after the competition. It’s going back to Stanford. There’s a biological preserve called Jasper Ridge. They do a lot of ecology and biology research there, and the park ranger and his family need a house.
What kind of architecture do you want to do next?
An architect I met said every architect that’s a celebrity is doing Sunday architecture, but they’re forgetting Monday architecture, Tuesday architecture, Wednesday architecture. Most of the buildings in the world that define energy use are houses, schools, commercial buildings, hospitals. Everyone’s attention is on these crazy Sunday buildings; so much attention is being taken away from what really matters, which is architecture and engineering.
Have you read Ayn Rand’s novel about an architect, “The Fountainhead”?
I read it as a high schooler and it really changed so much about me. Her actual philosophy is out there, but the way she writes, about people who have a strong sense of self — I used one of the quotes for my valedictorian speech in high school: “You cannot say ‘yes’ without saying ‘I.’”
This interview is edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @pattmlatimes
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