Home > News > Students Collaborate on Solar House Project

Students Collaborate on Solar House Project

From UVa Top News Daily
February 18, 2002

By Charlotte Crystal

The Sun is at the center of collaboration between U.Va. engineering and architecture students. Together, they are redefining what a solar home can be, collaborating on the design and construction of an 800-square-foot portable house and demonstrating that solar living is affordable, practical and comfortable. The house is U.Va.’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.

The DOE views the Solar Decathlon as an opportunity to educate students and the public about the role of energy consumption in our daily lives and to demonstrate "green," or sustainable living. The competition will take place over three days in September on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Decathlon entries will have to pass ten contests or events that consider a range of architectural and engineering issues. The contestants are challenged to redefine contemporary notions of home size, energy consumption, material selection and investigate innovative technologies to store and use solar energy.

The collaborative venture between the School of Architecture and the School of Engineering and Applied Science is a natural pairing — both stress environmental concerns as integral to their curricula and research.

Participating in the project are architecture, landscape architecture and planning students teamed with electrical, mechanical, civil, computer science and chemical engineering students. They are responsible for all aspects of the project: design, management, construction, fund raising and publicity. They have also created a Web site at http://solarhome.lib.virginia.edu to provide information to the public, as well as to serve as a research tool for professionals and the public.

During the past year and a half more than 60 students have worked on various aspects of the project through classes and independent study. Each semester, a changing mix of students has built on the research and decision making of those who were team members from the previous semesters. They have analyzed domestic activities, studied built examples of sustainable and photovoltaic-powered buildings and evaluated materials and systems. They have debated and defended their research and plans and together, narrowed down their ideas into one cohesive design. Construction of the house will begin mid-semester on an industrial site in Crozet and will continue through the summer.

"The most innovative engineering feature of the house is the degree of automation," said Paxton Marshall, professor of electrical engineering and the Engineering School’s faculty team member. "The students are developing that system themselves."

Their plan goes beyond collection and storage of solar energy and includes pre-programming the use of energy, as well as being able to control the overall energy balance remotely by computer or phone when weather conditions or personal needs change.

Paxton emphasized the benefit to the students of being responsible for all aspects of the project and the advantage they gain from working on an interdisciplinary project. "One of the limitations of the university experience is the isolation of different disciplines from one another," he said. "In the world, every significant problem is interdisciplinary. There is virtually nothing that is not."

The students are enthusiastic and inspired by the practical aspects of the project. "This is a lot of real-life stuff. The process of doing this house would be hard to simulate in the lab," said Ben Dorrier, a fourth-year mechanical engineering major.

"I joined the solar house team because it offered a chance to learn about the full process of architecture, and not just the preliminary design stage," said architecture graduate student Adam Ruffin. "The solar house offers a unique experience in architecture education. It is rare and fantastic that a studio project must go from concept to construction."

After the competition, the house will be installed permanently on University Grounds and serve as a guest house for visiting faculty, as well as a laboratory for sustainable design and renewable energy for future engineering and architecture students.

Building the solar house prototype carries a hefty price tag —more than $250,000. Students are soliciting donations, both financial and in-kind, from area professionals, businesses, foundations and alumni. Martin Horn General Contractors have agreed to assist with construction management throughout the building process. Albemarle Heating and Air has worked closely with the team to provide design reviews and help secure other support. Lowe’s and Weyerhaeuser are providing lumber products and framing materials. In addition, the Class of 1995 has agreed to transfer a $42,000 gift originally intended for solar panels on the roof of Campbell Hall to the solar house project.

U.Va. will be joined in the three-day competition by 13 other universities, including Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland, Texas A&M and the University of Texas at Austin.

"The students have learned a lot about problem solving, working together for a common good and communicating across disciplines, and about how decisions they make in one area have a tremendous impact on another area of the project," said Architecture School assistant professor John Quale. "But perhaps the greatest lesson they have learned is that the real design process starts when they are challenged to respond to real constraints."

Engineering student Dave Click sums it up best, "If a bunch of college students can build a solar house, anyone can."

Original Article | Local Copy

Return To List