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Reprinted from the Boulder Daily Camera

Solar Shootout
CU students team up to build energy-efficient,
attractive solar home for national competition.

By Katy Human
October 7, 2001

Many people see solar-powered, energy-efficient homes as odd-looking marvels, more unsightly than inviting, too expensive and too strange to actually buy or inhabit.

A group of University of Colorado students is out to change those perceptions, with an entry in the nation’s first-ever Solar Decathlon competition.

In October 2002, 14 teams of university students from Boulder to Puerto Rico will build compact and elegant solar-powered homes on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., submitting their creations to the scrutiny of experts and the general public.

Judges will choose one solar-built home based on performance in 10 categories, from energy production to aesthetics.

"The public perception is that solar doesn’t look good," said Richard King, a solar program manager with the Department of Energy in Washington and the man who created the solar home contest. "I want them to design me a house that aesthetic."

King’s goals are lofty. He hopes Solar Decathlon competitions will eventually spawn an energy-efficient "house for the masses," a modular building, 500-800 square feet, that operates independent of the conventional power grid and would work in environments across the world.

"It might take three competitions before we have the best solar house," King said. "But everyone’s going to want one. We’re going to go fast and quick from here."

King said he hopes that if architects begin talking with engineers in school — as this contest is forcing them to do — the entire home-building industry will benefit.

In February, student teams from universities around the nation sent the Department of Energy preliminary sketches of small, livable, solar-powered homes. Energy Department experts ruled them all viable, and the solar "decathletes" were off.

The CU team submitted a design in February, but didn’t truly get started until this fall, with one engineering and one architecture class dedicated to design of the school’s entry. The spirit of competition has inspired the two groups of students, often stereotyped as having very different personalities, to collaborate closely for the first time at CU.

"This is a very big thing," said Adam Jackaway, an engineering graduate student, to a class of undergraduate architecture students early in the semester. "This program is going to get national attention, unquestionably."

CU’s team also plans to include business and marketing students, to help raise money for the contest: The house may cost more than $100,000 to design and build.

Current world events make the solar home contest particularly compelling, said Blaise Stoltenberg, also an engineering graduate student, referring to California’s recent energy shortages and the Sept. 11 suicide attacks.

"If we weren’t so dependent on oil in the Middle East, would we have been in Desert Storm?" he asked. "We might not have pissed off Osama bin Laden so much."

When Jackaway first talked with the architecture students about the competition, one student leaned back in her chair and smiled. "We’ve already decided we’re going to win," she said.

Late last month, she and 10 classmates in Julee Herdt’s architecture class submitted initial designs to engineering student consultants for evaluation of their buildability and energy efficiency.

"The first things we saw were a little bit far out there," Stoltenberg admitted. "But they’ve been receptive in just one week, tweaking or completely redoing their designs," he said. "This part ahs been wonderful. We tell the ‘OK, we can’t do curved walls too easily,’ so they make them straight."

In review last week, student teams evaluated designs. Most had wide roofs, big enough to sustain an impressive array of photovoltaic panels — which produce electricity from the sun — and solar water panels, for hot water. Some designs featured trombe walls, which moderate the ups and downs of daily temperatures.

Teams discussed solar orientation, special types of glass, ventilation and the climate in Washington.

But as important as those technical details may be, what the CU team really wants is a beautiful house. They want a home that’s easy to live in, one that looks great of the cover of a national news magazine. And that may help them win the contest, too.

"Of the 14 (houses), I’ll guess five to eight are going to be extremely competitive on the energy parts," Jackaway said. "If everyone’s within 20 points on technical merits, architecture is going to win it."

The group has narrowed its attention to four designs; by October 31, the students will choose just one to refine during the rest of the year.

For the contest itself, the students’ house must stay cool midday in a Washington, D.C., autumn, and warm at night. But Michael Brandemuehl, a CU engineering professor and official leader of the CU Solar Decathlon team, said he’s hoping his group comes up with a design that could work almost anywhere in the country, any time of year, with some modification. "We’re not going to compromise broad appeal and overall good design," he said.

The decathlon’s sponsors — the Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, the American Institute of Architects, and BP Solar, a branch of the energy company — will judge student houses on their ability to maintain a comfortable living climate, in terms of both temperature and relative humidity, during the day and night.

Houses must generate enough energy and hot water to support a washer, dryer, dishwasher, bathroom and even an electric car, which DOE is trying to provide for each team. As part of the competition, students will need to generate enough power to drive the car to a local homeless shelter, to deliver home-cooked meals.

But they can’t actually do real dishes, or take showers. Since contaminated water can’t be discharged onto the National Mall, the contests are somewhat rigged.

"We’ll do laundry, but it’s not going to be our laundry, it’s going to be standard, clean cotton towels," washed without soap, Brandemuehl said.

He says the university teams are taking the decathlon extremely seriously, partly because they’ve developed courses based on the contest and because they must raise their own money.

Cecile Warner, a photovoltaic engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, said students may need to generate as much as several hundred thousand dollars to design and build their entries. Competition sponsors handed student groups $5,000 to kick-off their work, but Warner guessed teams would need at least $50,000 to $100,000 to design a home, with some groups spending much more.