Students build solar home for international competition

May 2, 2007

As global leaders grapple with national and international energy policies to slow climate change, a team of 110 Cornellians from across campus has set their sights on crafting a high-performance, energy-efficient model home for mass production. Their design will be one of 20 entries in the biennial Solar Decathlon, a 10-event contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Each entry will be judged in a weeklong public competition, staged October 12-20 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

The idea behind the solar village: “To show the world that anyone, anywhere can start living a sustainable lifestyle,” says M.Arch. student Chris Werner, one of 24 architecture students on the Cornell team.

“To make our house as energy-efficient and thermally optimal as possible, every component was meticulously researched and analyzed,” says Werner. “We considered properties such as recyclability, pollution potential, production waste, and efficiency, and we used advanced energy modeling techniques to make decisions ranging from the size of the heat pump to the placement of windows.”

The 600-square-foot home’s most innovative feature is a freestanding “light canopy.” A sort of exoskeleton made from industrial scaffolding, the canopy can support such functional components as photovoltaic panels, rainwater collectors, evacuated solar hot water tubes, or bike racks. It could also be installed to convert an existing home to energy independence or as a temporary power and water station for disaster relief. Says Werner: “It’s light, cheap, easy to put up, endlessly adaptable, and can be mass produced.”

In Washington, the light canopy will support a set of photovoltaics; “green” screens suspended from the sides and supporting webs of plants will add beauty and provide portable shade.  

The Cornell design also features an eight-foot-long solarium with two parallel glass walls that can open or close like an accordion, creating an instant patio or sun-warmed room; locally harvested white cedar siding; concrete-insulated, raised “Tate” floors made from squares resembling inverted muffin tins that conceal plumbing, wiring and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) ducts; modular metal furniture; and touch-screen control of all systems.

The team pre-sold the house this spring at auction, based both on the strength of the preliminary design and construction and its second-place finish in the 2005 Solar Decathlon. Additional funding for design and construction materials came from sponsors including the U.S. Department of Energy, General Electric’s Sun division, and the university.

Cornell’s 2005 finish also inspired Werner’s M.Arch. application. “I was so impressed I decided this would be the school for me,” he says. He hasn’t been disappointed. “I love the school and the program.”

But balancing work on the 2007 house with academic responsibilities was challenging. “All students took a full course load and volunteered at least four hours a week on construction shifts and sub-team meetings in addition to weekly overall progress meetings,” Werner says. Last spring, some third-year architects earned credits for their work in a design studio with a sustainability focus. Other students earned credits through an architecture seminar for non-majors and similar courses in engineering and landscape architecture.

In early October the team will load the house -- being constructed on a site close to campus -- onto a flatbed truck for transport to Washington. Judges will evaluate the house on such metrics as architecture and engineering, market viability, lighting, and whether the house generates enough excess electricity to power a small electric vehicle. Throughout the week, the students will offer tours to thousands of visitors from across the country, check out the competition, and keep their fingers crossed for scores to beat their showing in the 2005 contest.

By Linda Myers

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