October 13, 2005

Students Build Solar House

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A Cornell team constructed an 800 square-foot solar-powered house for the second Solar Decathlon competition. 18 teams representing colleges in locations from Madrid to Colorado are meeting on the National Mall in Washington to compete in the event. The decathlon is a contest in which each team designs and constructs a house powered only by solar energy to be displayed in a “solar village” from Oct. 7-16.

The houses are judged in 10 different categories, including architecture, comfort zone and energy balance. The homes must be livable, and fulfill everything that is to be expected of a modern home while using energy derived only from the sun.

The Cornell team’s house includes a custom designed energy recovery ventilator and crystalline-silicon photovoltaic panels.

The purpose of the event is to emphasize energy efficiency and to encourage innovation. Students learn about the importance of energy as a commodity.

“It is a wonderful project,” said Engineering Dean Zellman Warhaft, advisor to the Cornell team. “It reminds people of the critical times we’re in, in which people are using much too much energy. It teaches a lot about the environment and energy use.”

“The students show that you can build a self-sustained house using things that are available at the moment,” Warhaft said.

“We have really shown that you can live in a comfortable manner off the grid,” said Alexandra Hollinger ’06, one of the engineers working on the project.

The Cornell team includes students from many disciplines.

“Coordinating all of the different groups; architecture students, business majors and landscape majors” was a challenge, according to Warhaft, but also “a terrific benefit.”

“[The project is] full of diverse opinions – I am proud of the integrated nature of the house,” Warhaft said. “The landscape blends so nicely. It’s functional and not fancy. It all works very well. It is a pleasure to walk through and around.”

“We have students from six or seven colleges,” Hollinger said. “Some teams are really strong on architecture or engineering, but not many other teams were able to incorporate all of the different disciplines that we were. We are one of the only ones with landscaping.”

Building the houses has not been the only difficulty facing the participants according to Larissa Paige Kaplan ’06, one of the team leaders.

“The most challenging part so far is that it hasn’t been sunny, and there will be pouring rain until Sunday, which is when we pack up. The energy we were able to store last week is what we are running on. This has made it a more interesting competition because you have to figure out how best to use the stored energy.”

The gloomy weather has forced all of the teams to think about energy management.

“The team decided that the energy it takes to run a video during the house tours which is worth 1 point a day is not worth it,” Kaplan said.

The trip to Washington has further bonded the Cornell team after working on the house at school.

“We never fully set up our home on campus so it was rewarding to see the entire house come together,” Kaplan said. “The team is looking forward to coming back to Cornell, hopefully with some good news.”

“We have become a lot closer after Washington,” Hollinger said. “It is a great opportunity for Cornell students. We’re having a great time and learning a lot. We have met a lot of really interesting people here.”

The United States Department of Energy and the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy hosts the event.

Archived article by Mariel Bronen
Sun Contributor