Solar Power! (Part 1)

Every year, Washington, DC is home to a whole new village of homes – solar homes, that is. The United States Department of Energy holds a yearly competition for sustainable living. Universities from around the globe participate in this prestigious event, with students from renown architecture and engineering programs collaborating in designing what can be considered the house of the future.

While traditionally held on the National Mall amidst the Smithsonian Museums, the location this year moved to the East Potomac Park, slightly off from the Jefferson Memorial and the Tidal Basin where the world-famous cherry blossoms can be seen during the spring.

Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

The houses are usually highly innovative, utilizing the latest technology and sustainable materials. Needless to say that whoever is on the design teams for these houses should have no trouble studying for LEED accreditation!

Carol Anna/U.S. Department of Energy

On the other side of the spectrum, however, sustainable building practices and energy conservation can also be efficient and realizable through every day materials. Take the case of the plastic bottle.

In the Philippines, an initiative called Isang Litrong Liwanag (trans. One Liter of Light) produces low-cost, solar light bulbs for communities that have limited access to power. The bulb itself consists of a standard liter-sized soda bottle filled with a water and bleach solution. Once the bottle is filled with solution it is sealed and inserted into a piece of metal roofing. The bulb is then installed onto the roof by cutting a hole in the home’s roof, and placing the bulb into the hole.

Courtesy Isang Litrong Liwanag

The bulb diffuses the sunlight into the structure below it, generating light as bright as a standard 60-watt bulb. The initative and its parent foundation, the My Shelter Foundation, has plans to light one million homes in the Philippines by 2012.

Courtesy Isang Litrong Liwanag

Apart from the solar light bulb, the My Shelter Foundation has other sustainability projects, one of them again using the plastic bottle. In 2010 the first plastic-bottle school was built in San Pablo, Laguna, Philippines.

Courtesy My Shelter Foundation

The structure consists of a frame built with cement, with the plastic bottles reinforcing the concrete like bricks. The bottles are filled with adobe, a cement-like substance made from sand, clay, water and fibrous binder. The plastic holds the adobe in place and provides a rigid structure for reinforcement. Adobe is a common building material in the Philippines and other parts of Asia and Central America.

Courtesy My Shelter Foundation

A similar initiative to build plastic-bottle school is also happening in Guatemala, thanks to the Non-profit Hug It Forward. As you can see, however, their building method is slightly different from that seen in the Philippines, with the bottles held in between chicken wire and the reinforced with concrete to conceal the plastic from view.

Courtesy Hug it Forward

The two initiatives show the concept and spirit of the solar decathlon, but applied in the local communities of developing countries. No matter where we are or what we build with, sustainability concerns everyone and can have a tremendous impact for the future.

The solar decathlon runs until October 2 this year. Part two in this series on innovations in sustainable building practices will have more details on the Solar Decathlon 2011.

One Response to Solar Power! (Part 1)

  1. Tracey says:

    What amazing initiatives! I am especially impressed with the solar light bulb.

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