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Students compete to design solar homes

Full-size 'Solar Decathlon' entries populate Washington's Mall Oct. 12-19.

By Caitlin CarpenterCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 11, 2007



Cambridge, Mass.

If the predictions of 1950s futurists had come true, we'd be whizzing to work in hovercrafts as domestic robots cleaned our prefab domes. While such idealistic prophesies are often tempered by time, that hasn't kept academics and inventors from creating bold visions about the home of tomorrow.

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That's exactly what brought 20 teams from universities across the country and around the world to Washington, D.C., this week. And rather than presenting Styrofoam renderings or computer images of their visions, they're trucking full-size working models of their homes of the future in a bid to win the third Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the US Department of Energy and taking place on the National Mall.

Beginning Oct. 12 and continuing through the 19th, the 20 solar-powered homes will be viewed by movers and shakers from the world of sustainable housing as well as members of the public.

"These aren't futuristic pods or anything like that," says James Bickford, student leader of the Santa Clara (Calif.) University team. "We just integrated some of the best and most efficient products out there into a house that people would actually want to live in."

The first decathlon was held in 2002 and another in 2005 with the intention to hold the decathlon every two years thereafter. The DOE gives each student team $100,000 to build a house that relies exclusively on solar power and uses products already on the market.

A team of experts will judge the homes in 10 categories (hence, "decathlon"), including communications (how well they explain the technology to the public), architecture, and getting around (how far an electric car charged by the house's solar panels can go). The teams also cook dinner for the judges using energy-efficient appliances. Drying towels is another challenge.

The DOE's goals for the competition are twofold: to arrive at a consensus on what the best "green" design practices are by 2015, and to have a house produce electricity for

10 cents a kilowatt hour – competitive with public utilities. Along the way, the DOE hopes to encourage tomorrow's engineers, architects, and homeowners.

The team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a first-time competitor, began working on their house, Solar 7, back in February 2006 with the hope of unseating two-time victor University of Colorado. MIT students spent countless hours almost every weeknight and weekend to develop their entry.

Today, their home stands beside other entries on Washington's Mall. Solar 7 is an 800-square-foot cedar clapboard home. The interior is made from bamboo, a material that grows four times faster than wood. It has a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom with sliding doors that can subdivide the space to make it more versatile. Despite its small size (set by competition rules), Solar 7 has all the labor-saving devices: washer, dryer, oven, refrigerator, TV, computer, and dishwasher.

The walls are made of "wheat board" (ground-up wheat stubble), which made the house "smell like a barn" before the board was fireproofed, says Corey Fucetola, MIT's project manager. The black kitchen countertop is made from paper and resin, and the south-facing wall out of structural insulated panels that create a "warm wall."

Products must be on the market

The insulated panels are set to go on the market this week, and the MIT team thinks they may give them the winning edge. The one-foot-thick panels are made of two sheets of opaque plastic with water sandwiched between them. The panels' exteriors are coated with Aerogel, which transmits sunlight through to the water to heat the interior of the house without letting heat escape.

The 20 universities entered in the Oct. 12-19 Solar Decathlon inWashington, D.C., hail from across the United States and Europe. Theirsolar-powered homes incorporate some interesting new products andgadgets. Among them:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Thehouse walls incorporate Aerogel, a one-way insulating jell sandwichedbetween two sheets of opaque plastic. Aerogel transfers the sun's heatinto water-filled panels, heating the home as well as preventing lossof heat.

New York Institute of Technology

Partof the roof space of the NYIT house features a pond that simulates thegeothermal system that will eventually be installed beneath the homeonce it finds a permanent site location.

Santa Clara University

Givenits location at the heart of Silicon Valley, SCU's design is builtaround a computer that senses inter­ior and exterior conditions andmakes appropriate adjustments for comfort and energy efficiency.Windows darken or lighten depending on the needs for light and warmth.SCU will also be the only school to use bamboo I-beams, since they weredeveloped by a SCU professor who has a patent pending on the product.

University of Colorado

The760-square-foot home of the two-time Solar Decathlon winner will beexpanded by 1,400 square feet and given to the team's primary sponsor,Xcel Energy, which will use it as a permanent research and educationfacility. Instead of traditional solar panels, their house is the onlyone to feature a roof that is covered with giant solar roof shingles.The team also circulates water beneath the shingles to cool the cellsas well as to create hot water to use in the house.

How they will be judged:

Architecture (200 points)

Engineering (150 points)

Market Viability (150 points) – choose a target market; cost of house must be competitive with that market

Communications (100 points) – communicate technology and products effectively to the public

Comfort Zone (100 points) – maintain uniform, comfortable temperature and humidity

Appliances(100 points) – Clean dishes in a dishwasher for four days, cook a mealfor the judges, wash and dry a dozen towels for two days, use a TV forup to six hours a day, and run a refrigerator.

Hot Water (100 points) – Heat 15 gallons of hot water to 110 degrees F. in 10 minutes or less.

Lighting (100 points) – Must be functional, energy efficient, and aesthetically pleasing.

Energy Balance (100 points) – All energy must be supplied by solar power

GettingAround (100 points) – Electricity generated by the house's solarsystems is used to charge an electric car and drive it for as manymiles as possible.

The winner will be announced Oct. 19.

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