How Solar Has Continued to Grow

Q-and-A with Ray Tonjes

Sustainability and Green Building
Ray Tonjes

Ray Tonjes serves as a judge for the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.


As a judge for the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, what are some of the most interesting or innovative components you’ve seen in projects in recent years?

One that I recall was a green wall of vegetation, and how it was incorporated into a Veteran’s Facility. The project focused on bringing nature into the building to help those who suffered from PTSD. So that really hit the mark in terms of incorporating more than just energy-efficiency techniques. Integrating well-being, indoor air quality (IAQ) and other high-performance home solutions is what the Solar Decathlon is all about.

The dialogue with college students is always invigorating, and I love getting their perspective on potential solutions for real-world problems related to high-performance design. I always find it extremely valuable to see how the students interpret problems and see things differently, which in turn ends up leading to incredibly innovative solutions. I also find projects that have been designed to work with Habitat for Humanity interesting, because those projects can be replicated with affordability in mind.

How have builders been able to adapt the ideas from some of these projects into real-time building applications?

One of the really important elements of the submissions involves industry partners. The concept there is for the student teams to engage in their locale with industry professionals. One example that comes to mind is when Penn State engaged a semi-production builder by re-designing an inventory home to be net-zero energy. And that particular builder who had been engaged as an industry partner actually put it in their portfolio for sale.

How have you seen this program grow over the course of your involvement with it?

When I first got involved, it was called Race to Zero, which then became part of the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge. A few years later, they combined the Design Challenge with the two-year Build Challenge. Another significant change was that they used to display all the projects in one location on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and then in Irvine, Calif. But the expense of assembling the projects in one location was large — shipping and everything involved with getting the homes to one specific location was extremely cost prohibitive.

The organizers recently changed the process so that the projects in the Build Challenge are actually built within each team’s local community/area. That opens up so many more opportunities for adapting the projects to their local climate conditions, and opportunities to get local people involved and engage the population who likely needs the project the most. This change also makes it easier for the teams to engage with local industry partners.

How can the home-building industry attract more students, such as the ones who compete in the Solar Decathlon, to become home-building professionals?

I think this is a great opportunity for NAHB to stay a sponsor. We can take the next step by introducing some of the student teams to the National Green Building Standard (NGBS) certification process. We often see several LEED projects, but we don’t see as many site-specific residential certifications for NGBS, and I think that could engage a lot more students.

The other thing we can do at the national level is to is to interact more with state and local home builders associations (HBAs) and green certification programs. We can then have our ear to the ground at the state and local level, which will in turn help engage young people.