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Power house

Mizzou students compete in international Solar Decathlon

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by Nic Benner and courtesy of the MU Department of Architectural Studies
  • Published: Oct. 9, 2009
Interior of house

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Missouri students are basking in the bright rays that shine on Washington, D.C., this week. Contrasting with the damp weather back home, the sun gives their field trip the tenor of vacation. It creates a warm atmosphere for gazing at the Washington Monument or ruminating by the Reflecting Pool. It also powers every light, appliance, climate-control system, entertainment device and high-tech gadget operating in the solar house they’ve just built on the National Mall.

Under the moniker Team Missouri, Mizzou architectural studies students and Missouri University of Science and Technology engineering students are competing in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. The three-week-long international competition brings together 20 teams selected by a DOE committee to show off forward-thinking students’ most innovative approaches to sustainable living in solar-powered housing.

Planned, constructed and decked out entirely by undergrads, each self-sufficient house is evaluated for its integration of earth-friendly, budget-conscious efficiency with user-driven, style-savvy design. To rank high, a home must fare well in the decathlon’s 10 events: architecture, engineering, lighting, market viability, communications, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment and net metering.

It’s a tall order for an 800-square-foot structure, but the Missouri team is prepared.

“This project is actually letting students take what they’ve learned in their studio and their courses and apply it to a real-world problem,” says Barbara Buffaloe, an MU architecture instructor and housing and environmental design specialist. “We’re at the forefront of looking into these technologies and this research, and our students are going to be that much better when they graduate.”

Expansive thinking

The team’s concept, “expanding horizons,” was inspired by the Show-Me State itself. Students set out to bring the spirit of the Midwestern landscape into the one-bedroom house, creating clean, horizontal lines that evoke airiness, simplicity and modernity. The challenge of efficiently transporting the structure to the East Coast helped drive the design; to reduce shipping costs and fuel usage, the students built a largely collapsible house that fits on one trailer — a decision that lends itself to a flat orientation.

“We decided to make everything as horizontal as possible, and we balanced it with vertical elements on the inside of the house,” explains Mike Lam, a Mizzou senior who has worked on the project since its 2007 inception. “Everything came from this concept. Missouri is very open, and it came out in the project really well.”

The lines tie the vision together, from the outside in. To maximize the natural benefits of the sun’s position, a practice known as harnessing passive solar energy, the team equipped the house’s outside walls with horizontal louvers slanted to block 80 percent of the sun’s direct heat in the summer months while collecting most of the available heat on the floor during the winter. Angles are set based on the latitude of the project’s construction site in Rolla, which, as luck would have it, runs on the same latitudinal line as Washington. The slanted roof maximizes solar gain through photovoltaic panels and allows for high shelves and extra windows that give the small house’s interior an airy feel.

Inside, fixtures seem to float. Mirrored metal in the transitional space joining the windows, sinks and countertops creates a sense of expansive views without compromising privacy. Counters and sinks are wheelchair accessible, positioned close to the ground with space beneath them, further emphasizing the expanding-horizon effect while complying with Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines.

Materials are both locally procured and ecologically friendly. The siding is fashioned out of reclaimed wood from a 19th-century Missouri barn. The floors are Missouri oak, and the counters are made from concrete poured by a Kansas company. Eco-friendly Kirei board, compressed plywood manufactured from reclaimed sorghum straw, was used to build the cabinets.

Engineered for success

Interwoven with sleek aesthetics, the house’s inner workings showcase sound sustainable practices with a wow factor. All appliances and electric features run on solar energy collected by the 8-killowatt photovoltaic panels. Water is heated in evacuated tubes on the roof and then runs through pipes in the radiant floor heating system — warming up the house without the use of forced air — before it travels to the bathroom to be used for showers.

The most prominent source of bells and whistles is the Chameleon Home Automation System, which Missouri S&T students designed to control the temperature, humidity, lighting, window blinds, sound system, flat-screen TV and other appliances throughout the house. Automatic sensors inside adjust heating and air conditioning for maximum comfort. Users can program the system using touch screens or by swiping personalized key cards that not only allow access to the home but also automatically set the environment to each user’s pre-programmed preferences.

It’s a feature that elicits oohs and ahs during demonstrations. But for the engineering students, the fancy home gadgetry is nothing new. Missouri S&T has competed in three previous Solar Decathlons, blowing the judges away with their engineering skills but getting less bang from their architecture and interior design. Two years ago the student engineers formed a partnership with MU student architects, overcoming distance, communication and personality challenges to create one decidedly cohesive project.

“I think the strength of the partnership has shown in the final design,” Buffaloe says. “It’s clean and well-thought-out. They took their concept and made it applicable to the entire design.”

Participants say the interdisciplinary collaboration, which replicates real-world professional work, was a mind-broadening experience.

“We argued about what a concept was for the first two weeks,” Lam recalls. “I’ve learned that sometimes functionality is better. Sometimes you’ve got to listen to the engineers.”

The big picture

Students have been pushed even further outside their discipline-specific comfort zones by the requirement to address the house’s marketability and livability while figuring out how to raise funds to complete it.

The Department of Energy awards each participating team $100,000 for business operations and transportation — not for the actual construction. For that students procured donations of materials, appliances and labor as well as money — much of which came from the MU Interdisciplinary Innovations Fund. Students raised $350,000 in cash and kind and managed to build the house with one of the smallest price tags in the competition.

Through Oct. 21, the team gets to show off the results. The competition entails actually living in the house on the National Mall, running appliances throughout the day and hosting eight-person dinner parties and movie nights with guests from other teams. The two dozen Missouri students now in Washington also will be reunited with some of their original teammates, a few of whom have graduated since the project started.

When the competition has ended, the house will be added to the solar village in Rolla, where Missouri S&T’s previous projects are used as student rental housing. No word yet on which lucky tenant will get to program the Chameleon.

Read more in:  Beyond CampusEducationSpecial Features & SeriesArts & CultureScience & TechnologyAgriculture & the Environment

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012