An Architect's Look into Solar

Originally written for GSVS: 2050- Sustainable Energy Systems with Professor James Groves, Fall 2018

Worldwide, cities, regions, states, and countries have begun to pledge 100% sustainable resource usage in the near future. Here in the United States, states like Hawaii and California have declared to be 100% clean energy by 2050, and cities, like Minneapolis, Orlando, Portland, San Francisco, and more, have announced to be 100% clean energy around 2025-2035. With so many places committed, the issue becomes transitioning their energy sector’s major categories- commercial, industry, residential, and, transportation- off traditional energy types (oil, coal, gas, etc.) to renewable energy (hydro, solar, wind, etc.). This complex problem has many facets and levels, including the economic, political, and societal shifts to meet energy standards. In many ways, the average citizen must feel way over their heads on this intense issue of climate change, and the complex solutions needed to transition to clean energy. The investigation then becomes, how can citizens take a facet of the energy sector and begin to transition, in some way, to renewables? One of the first ideas, within the residential energy sector for sustainable energy, is installing solar panels. Although solar is only a small percentage of renewable energy, expanding its usage, in any way, will help with this 100% transition to clean energy. The design and implementation of solar power should not only help customers obtain clean energy, but should satisfy more economic and aesthetic factors, incentivizing an easier transition to clean power. Architects need to begin to facilitate better solar design to better improve the residential energy sector’s goal for a lower cost, carbon-free future.

The Current State of US Electricity in the Residential Sector

There is a need for an energy transition within the residential sector. In 2017, the residential sector was responsible for about 11% of total US energy consumption and electric power was responsible for nearly 38% (EIA).

Figure 1: US Electricity Retail Sales by Sector Figure 2: US Energy Consumption by Source and Sector

Figure 1 clearly displays the high use of electricity within the residential sector. Within this electric power sector, figure 2 breaks down where this electricity comes from by source. Only 17% of this energy comes from renewable energy. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that “in 2017, the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. residential utility customer was 10,399 kilowatthours (kWh).” Referring back to Figure 1, electricity use in the residential sector steadily increased since the 1950 (yet is starting to slowly level out with the increase in energy efficiency technology). Meaning, that utility customers are using more electricity, paying more, and increasing their carbon footprint. This increase in residential electric power consumption means there is a parallel increase in coal and natural gas consumption since electric power plants utilize these sources for electricity generation. With no change to the current generation sources for electricity, the future looks bleak, especially after reviewing recent trends in residential housing.

A Look at the United States’ Housing Market

With the ever-rising increase in US population, there is a parallel in the rise of US housing units.

Figure 3: US Census Data on Housing Unit Estimate

In Figure 3, the US Census reports the estimate of total housing unit from year to year. Each year, nearly one million units are added across housing typologies (single-family, apartments, etc.).

Figure 4: Percentage Change in US Housing Units from 2007- 2017

Across the United States, there has been an average 2-5% increase in housing units from 2007-2017 (US Census Bureau). The US housing unit trend seems to suggest a steady rise annually. Naturally, since the 2008 housing market collapse, there has been a steadily increasing market.

Figure 5: Historical Trends of US New Privately-Owned Housing Market

Figure 5 shows the history of the US housing market (for new privately-owned housing units) reported by the US Census Bureau. In the following ten years after the 2008 housing market catastrophe to the present day, generally, there has been an increase in new housing, specifically within the single-family housing typology.

Figure 6: Historical Trends of the Size of Single-Family Houses

Furthermore, Figure 6 exhibits the increase in size of these single-family houses. To summarize, within United States housing arena, for new single-family housing, there has been a steady increase in units and the size of these units are bigger. Despite the overall increase in energy efficient technology implementation across US housing units, Figure 1 still shows the rise in electricity consumption in the residential sector, which can be explained by the increase in housing units, specifically single-family houses and the trend of their overall increase in square footage. The question is, within the residential sector, how can there be a transition to more renewable sources for electrical generation to mediate this general increase in electricity and thus an increase in coal and natural gas? As far as renewable resources, solar energy will become an increasingly vital source in the residential sector.

The Current State of US Solar in the Residential Sector

According to the US Energy Information Administration, solar “provided about 1% of total U.S. electricity in 2017” (EIA). Figure 7 provides the breakdown of energy consumption in the US during 2017 and solar accounted for 6%.

Figure 7: US Energy Consumption by Energy Source in 2017

Within the residential sector, there is huge potential for solar. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reported that around “42% of all U.S. residential rooftop solar technical potential is on LMI households” which could amount to a “solar capacity could total 320 gigawatts (GW) of potential solar installations across America” (National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 33). This report shows just how much untapped electrical energy can be utilized if all low-middle income residential housing units installed solar panels. The research focused on the low-middle income residential types since the majority of US residential solar panel installations are on higher income residencies. The concern with solar is the geographic and weather conditions that drive the generation of electricity, i.e. the amount of sunlight each region gets. Figures 8 and 9 from the NREL report show exactly how much energy can be utilized by in terms of GWh and percent increase.

Figure 8: Solar Potential Energy in GWh by County Figure 9: Solar Potential Energy Increase by County

These figures seek to dispel the notion that solar energy isn’t feasible for all parts of the country. If all low-middle income residences could somehow install the solar technologies required, the US residential sector could rely less on traditional sources of energy. Furthermore, solar panels provide huge savings (and significant decreases to carbon footprints) for households. “A 20-year electricity savings from solar can be significant, ranging from the low end of $10k to almost $30k” and reduce the average household carbon emissions anywhere from 2-15 metric tons per year. Therefore, the low-middle income residencies will be saving money and helping transition to a cleaner future in electricity. As far as higher income residencies, there are several new options that could greatly improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and beauty of the solar panel.

The Benefits of Smarter Solar Panel Design

Solar Photovoltaics (PV) panels offer a renewable source of energy as well as cheaper energy bills for consumers. While the initial costs of adding these panels can be expensive, many states offer subsidies to incentivize them, and in the end, the savings outweigh the cost of them. One school of thought in the electricity sector (with greater prevalence in the commercial and residential sectors) is the use of energy efficient technologies. Many higher income consumers invest in energy efficiency over renewable energy technologies (i.e. solar panels). A research paper by University of Wyoming in the Building Energy Research Group (UW-BERG) reported that “energy efficiency comes to a point of diminishing returns” while “the cost of on-site energy production continues to drop” (Gardzelewski). Furthermore, trying to achieve a zero-energy building is “more cost effective when preference is given to installing more solar panels, rather than to seeking the highest levels of energy efficiency or reduction” because of the diminishing returns of energy efficiency. The cost to install solar panels has an initial high cost; in the US, the average cost for a single-family house around $11,000-15,000 after tax credits (Adams). On the other hand, as Nate Adams, founder of Energy Smart Home Performance, explains there is a sweet spot for energy efficiency (as outlined in Figure 10).

Figure 10: Sweet Spot of Energy Efficiency

The example Adams uses is a $3,000 attic air sealing and insulation job, which doesn’t quite pay off since the energy savings are disappointing. Following that logic, $3000 times 5 improvement projects equals $15,000, just to get to the sweet spot, not even fully efficient. Whereas, that money could be spent on the higher initial cost of the solar panels, providing much more savings at that price point. Homeowners should invest in renewable energy technologies over energy efficiency technologies to get the most savings while contributing to transition away from the US reliance of traditional energy sources.

One issue of solar panels, in most residential installations, is that they are an afterthought and addition that is standardized in design on the roof. Jon Gardzelewski, an architect and professor at the UW-BERG, has been a lead researcher and advocate for smarter design within the sector of residential solar architecture, specifically within the single-family housing typology. While aesthetics is not typically a topic debated within the sustainable energy field, there can be real power in creating visually stunning houses that integrate solar panels into the design of the house. An aesthetic home is typically worth more money on the market. Thus, in a sense, the simple instance of integrating solar panels into a house design, can create a higher valued house; aesthetics can affect economics. In an interview with AutoDesk, Gardzelewski explains this very concept:

Appraisers aren’t enabled too do a very good job at evaluating a zero-energy home. So, there is a lot of subjectivity into what these things are worth. In some instances, we’ve come across appraisers who are very firm in their stance that adding solar panels will not increase the value at all, which is shocking. There is no other functional thing that you can spend thousands of dollars on for your home that appraisers will look at and say there’s no additional value. (Khatri)

Builders must begin to take the responsibility to integrate these green products into their design. Furthermore, when solar panels are fully integrated into the design of the house, they can not only look better, but function more efficiently.

Figure 11: Traditional Solar PV Design Figure 12: Smart Solar PV Design

Dr. Anthony Denzer, researcher of UW-BERG, as well as Gardzelewski, published a taxonomy of solar architecture to help guide designers to utilize his ideas.

Point four- Shading. If you build an exterior structure and you can pull out an enclosed porch—a space that you’re not trying to fit onto the existing roof—you can use it to shade a small space outside,” he says. “You can add solar panels to this new area, and it won’t have to blend into the rest of the roof because it is a completely separate thing. (Denzer and Gardzelewski)

The taxonomy of solar architecture includes points like: “Legibility” (within architectural drawings), “Material Planes” (method of design), “Form Follows” (function), “Shading”, “Disguise” (integration of the PV panel surreptitiously), and “Undesigned” (design structures with solar panels, no afterthoughts). The intent of Gardzelewski and Denzer’s research is to create zero-energy homes with intention, that are worth more money, helping push this renewable energy technology on the market with more vigor. Denzer’s research paper also reported that consumers are willing to “pay on average $6,200 to $7,300 extra for design integrated solar relative to standard rooftop solar, which indicates strong evidence of an aesthetic preference” (Denzer and Gardzelewski). Solar architecture can provide electricity from a renewable source, while being rational from an economic standpoint, and beautiful from an aesthetic one.

Architects, specifically at the residential level, should have the responsibility of informing consumers of the cost benefits and reduction of carbon emissions that are possible with the utilization of solar architecture. As Figures 8 and 9 (previously mentioned on page 6) show, there is huge potential for low-middle income housing to implement solar panels. With a few extra design techniques, architects can begin to design these low-middle income homes to fully reach the potential of solar energy, saving households thousands (over the years) on electricity bills while creating visually stunning work. Energy efficiency techniques may seem more affordable, creating a ‘low-hanging fruit’ mentality, but its deceptively more expensive to reach the appropriate payoffs. When new homes are built -for any income- there is a range of techniques architects can implement to create the suitable solar design.

New Technologies in Solar Energy

Emerging solar technology can further the boundaries of solar architecture, creating visually-stunning buildings of greater economic value. Along the same lines as Garzelewski and Denzer’s research, Tesla Motors and SolarCity have developed a line of solar roof tiles. “The Tesla solar roof is a building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) product that takes the functionality of solar panels and integrates it into roof shingles” (Richardson). These tiles function to protect the home, as typical roof tiles would, as well as generate clean electricity for one’s home.

Figure 13: Tesla Solar Roof Design

The aesthetic design of the house would no longer be affected by the typically bulky afterthought of Solar PV panels, but would be enhanced to create a gorgeous house that utilizes a renewable source of energy for cleaner electricity. It’s important to remember that this new technology is definitely a premium, luxury item that has only just hit the market. The estimated price of the solar roof is around $21.85 per square foot. In comparison to a normal solar panel project, the Tesla solar roof is “nearly $25,000 more than installing solar panels,” suggesting that if a consumer needs a new roof, with new solar panels and has extra money, this luxury item would definitely be viable. Since the technology is still new, there is no official data on the subject, but following the same logic as Denzer and Gardzelewski’s argument, the solar roof will add serious value to the house due to its aesthetic and functional energy redesign. While solar roofs aren’t feasible for an average homeowner, perhaps in the coming years the technology price will fall. As Richard Swanson, founder of high-efficiency solar panel manufacturer SunPower, noted about the new technologies: “new industries face a major learning curve, and as they improve, prices fall” (Matasci). The rate of standard solar PV panels has been dropping steadily from year to year. In 2008, “the cost of a solar panel installation was $8.82 per watt” (Matasci).

Figure 14: Trend in Solar Panel Cost

Figure 14 shows the steady decrease in price of solar PV panels in recent years. As more research and market competition occurs, companies find cheaper and better ways to produce the product. Along the same lines, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the cost of a solar roof decline as more companies (outside of Tesla) begin to develop and refine the product, allowing greater financial accessibility to consumers.


In the coming years, it’s vital for the United States to transition off of traditional sources of energy to renewable energy. With nearly 40% of the US energy consumption coming from electric power, and 11% of consumption from the residential sector, it’s vital to switch from natural gas and coal to cleaner sources. As the housing market continues to grow, creating single-family units with larger average square footage, the need to utilize electricity from cleaner sources is even more important. Within the residential sector, homeowners and architects can work together to harness solar energy, decreasing the power bills and carbon emissions of consumers. Instead of focusing solely on energy efficiency (which has diminishing returns), homeowners should choose to work towards creating zero-emissions housing via solar PVs. Architects can design these larger single-family houses (among other housing typologies) with solar panels integrated into the roof, creating homes that are cleaner from an energy stand point, more aesthetic, and that are higher valued. Newer technologies like the solar roof are in line with these principles of aesthetic, clean, high market valued homes, yet aren’t feasible for low-middle income households quite yet. The residential sector, across incomes, should utilize the vital potential of the solar, decreasing the need for traditional sources that generate electricity. Communities working towards zero-emissions are going to need to transition every major sector (not only residential and electric power, but industry, commercial, and transportation as well) to utilize renewable energies. Utilizing smarter solar architecture, the residential energy sector can increase profitability, decrease emissions and reliance on nonrenewable resources, and create an overall better product for customers, creating a cleaner future for homeowners.


My goal is to become an architect who is thoroughly informed on sustainable practices. Besides being an architecture major, I am working towards a minor in global sustainability. While this minor provides a long list of courses, I decided to take Sustainable Energy Systems to learn the dynamics of the US energy field. Before this class, I really only understood the basics of environmentalism: policies, laws, and issues within that. My knowledge of the energy field was severely limited. As an architect, I was to be in tune with a wide range of knowledge to better suit the needs of society through the built environment. I hope to apply the methods of sustainable energy in any way I can within my architectural projects. From small methods like utilizing smart solar architecture to more complex systematic energy processes, I feel this course will help me with future solutions in my structural design. Whether I end up in residential architecture or larger projects in commercial or governmental sectors, I will remember the complexities of this class. While sustainability and environmentalism tend to seem like fields for politicians, businesses, and engineers, architects will play in an important role in creating a cleaner built environment that solves some of the environmental and energy issues. To create solutions to the complex environmental issues, people need to work across fields, coming up with smart answers to benefit the wellbeing of our society and environment. As a native Washingtonian, I am accustomed to spending my summers hiking and seeing the beauty of nature. I want future generations to be able to enjoy the natural beauties of the world just as I have. This field is too important to ignore. Future generations should have the right to clean air, clean water, and access to the natural wonders of the world.

Works Cited

Adams, Nate. “How ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’ Has Poisoned Energy Efficiency.” Green Tech Media. 2 February 2015. Accessed 1 December 2018.

Dietz, Robert. “Single-Family Home Size Increases at the Start of 2018.” National Association of Home Builders Discusses Economics and Housing Policy. 21 May 2018. Accessed 30 November 2018.

Gardzelewski, Jon, Anthony Denzer, and Benjamin Gilbert. “Architecturally Integrated Photovoltaic Panels: Residential Design Methods and Consumer Preferences.” University of Wyoming, Dept. of Civil and Architectural Engineering. Accessed 31 October 2018.

Khatri, Taz. “5 Ways to Design Solar Architecture Beautifully—Not as an Ugly Afterthought.” AutoDesk. 18 January 2017. Accessed 30 October 2018.

Mooney, Meghan and Benjamin Sigrin. “Rooftop Solar Technical Potential for Low-to-Moderate Income Households in the United States.” National Renewable Energy Laboratory. April 2018. Accessed 1 December 2018.

Richardson, Luke. “How Much Do Solar Panels Save?” EnergySage. 23 January 2018. Accessed 30 November 2018.

Richardson, Luke. “Tesla solar roof: Elon Musk’s solar roof tiles complete review.” EnergySage. 6 October 2018. Accessed 31 October 2018.

United States. Census Bureau. “Percentage Change in Housing Units by County: 2007 to 2017

May 24, 2018.” Washington: GPO, 2017. Accessed 1 December 2018.

United States. Census Bureau. “Annual Estimates of Housing Units for the United States, Regions, Divisions, States, and Counties: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2017 more information

2017 Population Estimates.” Washington: GPO, 2017. Accessed 1 December 2018.

US Energy Information Administration. 2018, Accessed 29 November 2018.