September 8, 2006

Solar House Designers Encourage Sustainability

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Cornell’s Solar Decathlon team made headlines last year when they placed second overall in the Solar Decathlon, a Department of Energy-sponsored international competition featuring 18 university teams. Now, four former members of the Solar Decathlon team are making a name for themselves with their newest project, the design firm Independence Energy Homes.

IEH, which described itself as being “committed to the practical implementation of zero net-energy housing,” was founded by Stephanie Horowitz ’05, Tim Fu M.S. ’05, Ben Uyeda M.S. ’05, and David Wax MBA ’05.

Horowitz, who received her bachelor’s degree in architecture from Cornell, is the vice president of Custom Designs for IEH. She said that the founders of IEH came together before the Solar Decathlon competition, but “the success of the Cornell team certainly gave our company some momentum.” She described the Solar Decathlon team as working “to investigate real change within the current social and economic context in which we live,” a goal that IEH has continued to pursue.

Fu, who earned both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering within his four years at Cornell, is IEH’s chief technology officer. He credited the Solar Decathlon for the opportunities it afforded team members to work together in new ways. He described the collaboration of students from both the architecture and engineering schools at Cornell as “unprecedented,” noting that “meeting world-class architects — or soon to be world-class architects — was certainly a benefit. It made the Cornell Solar Decathlon team “extremely well-rounded,” he added.

This collaboration continues at IEH, with the four founders working closely with other IEH members Emile Chin-Dickey ’05 and Jordan Goldman M.S. ’05 on over 300 houses in the past six months.

Ben Uyeda, IEH’s chief architectural officer, was also lead architect of the Cornell Solar Decathlon team. He described his goal — and that of IEH’s — as convincing the public of the benefits of sustainable housing, and said he is encouraged by the “increased interest in sustainability and green design.”

Simone Greenbaum ’08, a summer intern with IEH, called the founders “a very creative group with a clear vision,” adding that “each of the founding Cornell alums bring so much to the table.” Greenbaum, who spent her time with IEH working on PR and marketing for the firm, described the experience as “inspiring,” crediting the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning’s “bottom-up” approach as allowing her the opportunity to work with IEH.

Greenbaum described one of IEH’s current projects, Alwen’s Promise, as “truly innovative.” Alwen’s Promise is designed to be a fully energy-efficient, off-grid, self-sufficient, renewable, and hurricane-proof prototype “eco-inn” located on the tiny island of Dominica. The goal, Greenbaum said, is to “launch a new type of home and hospitality building that will allow small nations, low in fossil fuels, to establish their energy independence.”

IEH is also looking towards taking a more proactive approach in the building of zero-energy homes.

Fu said, “the goal is to design our own construction-developer firm.” Uyeda added that IEH wants to take “more proactive, not reactive” roles.

Horowitz said that the team’s understanding of sustainability is continually evolving.

“We’re rethinking the home, from the way it uses and can produce energy, to building materials and systems, to the homeowner’s mortgage,” he said. “Our multidisciplinary team allows us to take this unique and holistic approach. This is the way we have chosen to work towards sustainability.”

As IEH continues their work with sustainability and zero-energy design, with projects ranging from a development in Rancho Mirage, Calif., to a zero-net energy prototype home in Cortland, N.Y., the founders are quick to credit their time at Cornell — as Horowitz put it, “we all received a great education from our respective disciplines within the university. That sound knowledge helps us on a day-to-day basis.”

With their new projects and plans for expansion into developing, IEH’s members are enjoying what Horowitz calls “practice instead of research.” She added that it is “amazing” that the IEH team, only a year out of school, “is able to act on our own ideas.”

Uyeda said, “[when you’re in school] you’re very idealistic … [but] you can actually do the things you wanted to in school.”