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THE SOLAR DECATHLON CHALLENGE

For a little over a week, a small neighborhood consisting of 20 houses sat in the National Mall in Washington D.C. These houses were not like any other houses in the area, however as they needed no energy from the power grid- they relied solely on solar energy.

From October 12th to the 20th, a team of over 200 students and faculty from the University of Illinois participated in the Solar Decathlon held in Washington D.C.

The Solar Decathlon challenges 20 teams from 6 countries to create a completely self-sustaining house using solar energy called an elementhouse. This requires the teams to create a house in which every watt of energy collected from their solar panels is used in the most efficient way possible.

The teams are then judged in ten different categories such as architecture, engineering and communications. Many of these categories require them to do everyday activities such as cook, clean, and run basic appliances and electronics.

The Illinois team placed first in the market viability and comfort zone categories and placed ninth overall. The market viability category requires teams to have market appeal and to be suited for everyday living while the comfort zone specifies temperatures and humilities which the house must remain within, according to the Solar Decathlon’s website.

Students from the engineering, architecture, industrial design, communications and graphic design programs all contributed to the project.

Ben Barnes, student project manager of engineering and graduate student at the University said, “I got a chance to work with architecture and industrial design [students]- people who bring a different set of skills and have a different set of limitations.”

Illinois’ elementhouse incorporated many unique ways of conserving energy, according to Barnes, who spent much of his time and effort on the house deconstructing and reconstructing appliances in order to make them more energy efficient.

Instead of wasting energy on moving air throughout the house, Illinois designed a system of heating coils which dangled from the ceiling to heat the house. They also saved energy by using the heat from the air conditioning system to heat water, “simultaneously cooling your space and heating water by moving heat rather than generating heat,” said Barnes.

According to Jason Wheeler, student project manager of architecture, energy can be conserved by simply positioning the windows in a home correctly. Due to the sun’s positioning in the winter, it is most efficient to minimize the windows on the north side of the house.

Wheeler’s team also used the actual solar panels as a shade for the windows as not to let any extra heat in through the windows in the summer. Wheeler reports that they also use high-efficiency insulation made of poly urethane. It has a high R-value, which means that it is very thermally resistant. All of the doors and windows used ad high R-values, as well.

In addition to using ways to conserve energy, the house is also green in several different ways. The architecture team used bamboo, which is a renewable wood, throughout the house. The house is also capable of being completely deconstructed and reconstructed without the use of fossil fuel-burning cranes or trucks.

The team also created a unique way to let their elementhouse adapt to the ever-changing needs of the modern-day family. According to Wheeler, the best way to help conserve energy is simply to “learn to live with less.”

Wheeler and another project manager of architecture, Nora Wang, actually designed the University’s elementhouse to consist of several different modules which can be combined or deconstructed to fit the specific needs of the situations. This allows for the elementhouse to be manufactured at a plant and constructed elsewhere in the country.

The students modeled this after the FIMA trailers used as temporary housing and offices in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The deconstructability of these modules allows for them to be transported into areas otherwise inaccessible by larger modules.

In theory, these solar houses would be connected to the power grid only for emergencies. Most of the energy the house would need could be stored within the house itself. In fact, where there is a large excess of energy collected by the solar panels, it could actually add energy back into the power grid.

Written by: Amanda Cornish,
Mandy Cornish is a journalism student at the University of Illinois.


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