For more than two years, a group of Washington State University students in architecture, construction management, interior design, and engineering designed and built a solar house, including all of its systems, from the ground up. In September 2005, they transported the house to Washington, D.C., to take part in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition on the National Mall. WSU was one of only 18 schools from around the world-and the only school from the Northwest-to participate. Sponsored by DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, the competition required students to plan and build a 650-square-foot home and provide it with all the modern conveniences, including heating and air conditioning, refrigeration, hot water, lighting, appliances, and communications-powered entirely by the sun. As students did laundry, fixed dinners, and washed dishes in them, the houses were judged on their energy production, efficiency, and design.

The Solar Decathlon project tackles in a hands-on way the problem of energy use, which promises to be a major concern for today’s graduates. In the United States, most of the energy used to fuel our economy comes from non-renewable resources, including coal, oil, and natural gas. (The Northwest is fortunate in getting some of its energy needs substantially met from one renewable resource: hydroelectric.) As the problems encountered after Hurricane Katrina made clear, our transportation system and much of the economy is particularly dependent on the availability of cheap oil. Demand for energy and oil has continued to increase, especially as countries such as China work to become economic powerhouses. As U.S. oil production has declined, we have become increasingly dependent on foreign suppliers. Meanwhile, many experts warn that worldwide oil production may be reaching its peak.

In addition, the emission of carbon dioxide occasioned by the continual burning of fossil fuels to power our industries, heat our homes, and drive our cars has created concern about the possibility of human-caused climate change. With about 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Melting glaciers, rising sea levels, mass extinctions, and greater frequency and intensity of hurricanes are among the nightmare scenarios that scientists and their computer models predict.

By building a “village” of solar-powered homes on the National Mall, the Solar Decathlon competition aims to show that solar power could viably provide for at least some of our energy needs.

The solar industry is rapidly growing throughout the world, says Mike Nelson, manager of the Northwest Solar Center through WSU Extension. In Germany, the industry grew by 165 percent last year; Japan had a 60-percent increase, and in the U.S., the industry expanded by 35 percent. Last year too, Washington became the first state to provide production payment incentives for solar housing-meaning that those who produce solar power are paid for the electricity they generate. The state’s renewable energy legislation is thought to be the most progressive of its kind in the U.S.

“I hope this competition helped to heighten awareness about this emerging technology,” says Nelson. “A lot of people don’t incorporate [solar] into their thinking. The students, I hope, can help the University take a step forward. WSU architecture is out in front.”

Building for sustainability has to become the norm, rather than exception, says Matthew Taylor, assistant professor in the School of Architecture and Construction Management and advisor for the Solar Decathlon project.

“It’s important to do it correctly,” he says. “Otherwise, . . . it could very easily turn into a fad. We have to do drastically better [than we have been doing].”

From the beginning, the multidisciplinary team of students wanted to show that their home could be beautiful and functional without following strict solar design guidelines. Rather than a solar home’s typical 45-degree sloped roof and due-south orientation, the WSU house has an eight-degree sloped roof and is 17 degrees off due south. But with the use of improved solar technologies, this has had little effect on the performance of the system. The butterfly roof is its most distinctive feature. “It was the most extreme way to show the public that solar design does not have to follow typical constraints,” says Brad Frey, a graduate student in architecture and a lead designer on the project.

The house is also unique because of its nuts and bolts construction. Because the team wanted to build a home that could be transported easily, the entire structure can be broken down into pieces. Yet when it’s assembled, it doesn’t look like it just came off a flatbed truck.

With the help of in-kind and cash contributions, the house cost about $200,000 to build, the smallest budget of any of the Solar Decathlon homes. The students were proud that, unlike many of the other teams in the contest, they did all the work themselves, installing plumbing, cabinetry, lighting, appliances, and furniture. The coffee table-made out of sorghum, and designed and built by Andrea Read, a third-year architecture student, and some of her teammates-pivots up and becomes a dining room table, saving valuable space and increasing efficiency. The office desk is made from scraps from the floor joists. Various parts of the living room couch-designed and built by Lindsay Mellum, an interior design major-serve dual purposes. Some have storage space within the seats. One piece hides a pop-up coffee table.

The home has a number of other environmentally-friendly appliances and features. Its refrigerator-10 times more efficient than that found in a normal home-also pumps cool air into the house and serves to pre-heat the water system. In a typical home, the refrigerator is one of the big energy hogs, says Read. The floor is eucalyptus, produced by Weyerhaueser, using second-growth trees that only take seven or eight years to harvest. The home’s structural members are a recycled product, made from what would be waste wood from sawmills.

“We chose to have everything be sustainable,” says Read. “We’re sticking with our Northwest theme by being green. We are using our materials to their fullest.”

The siding and decking of the home are wood-plastic composites, developed at WSU’s Wood Materials and Engineering Laboratory and made from recycled products. Contrasting with the modern look of the wood-plastic siding, the students used recycled, industrial-style metal sheeting as shade devices on their home. The sheeting was installed on sliding barn doors, allowing for temperature control and privacy.

“We are questioning the idea of always having brand new things,” says Duff Bangs, another student on the project.

On a hot July day, Mellum is eager to tell me about the home’s wall panels, called Acsys panels. The inverse of structurally insulated panels (SIPS), they sit in a giant pile, looking like an enormous Styrofoam cooler. They have very high insulation value-R35, rather than the typical R25. Corrugated steel runs through the center of each panel, enabling students to cut into the polystyrene foam material and pass wiring through it without compromising structural integrity. The panels will do a great job of moderating the temperature of the house.

“These are very progressive walls,” says Mellum enthusiastically.

As an interior design student, Mellum never imagined becoming an expert on walls. She started the project picking out finishes and designing cabinetry. Soon she found herself learning about structures, plumbing, and electric wiring.

She and a core group of teammates work at least 40 hours a week on the project. And now she finds herself gushing about structurally insulated panels, of all things. One can’t help wondering just how a roomful of wall panels in a fairly beat-up engineering laboratory could be that thrilling.

“I would rather be doing this than anything else,” she says
. “It’s so exciting to actually build something. To see our design become full-scale is really special.”

Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the project, each student has had much deeper involvement and is getting a holistic view of it, says Nelson. In architecture, it is absolutely critical to think through the entire system.

“It’s easy to draw a nice looking building,” he says. “Too often, though, the architect leaves the thermal system up to the engineers, and the building is designed without thinking of the mechanical systems. I can think of some beautiful, modern Seattle buildings that are thermal disasters.”

Throughout the summer, the students arrive every morning and work long hours. Slowly the house takes shape, filling up a parking lot in front of the engineering lab.

“Sometimes we’re stressed beyond all reason,” says Frey. “Other days, life couldn’t be better.”

“We’re facing such a strict deadline,” adds Mellum. “It’s pretty easy to get on a real roller coaster.”

As the fall deadline approaches, are they nervous? Excited?

“Yes, all of that,” says student Robert Liston. “We’re always thinking about how much time we have, but there also hasn’t been a day when I haven’t been happy to be here. We work really well as a team.”

In late August, the students have returned from their summer break, and the solar house is abuzz with activity. On the wall in the engineering lab is a “Treasure Chest of the Day.” This is meant to be encouraging, giving accolades to a student who brought in a donor or had particular success. One treasure chest goes to Duff Bangs “for his commitment and dedication to our roof! When others saw the impossible, Duff found an opportunity . . . for free.” Along with the Treasure Chest are daily inspirational snippets like this conversation between Mellum and her mother via cell phone: Mom: “Be like a stamp.” Mellum: “What?” Mom: “You know, stick to it.”

Support for the project has been overwhelming, says Read. To get their materials, students find what they need, often on the Internet. Then they call companies and ask for donations.

On a white board in the engineering laboratory is a long list of needed materials and supplies. Every day, the students erase something off the list and then add more. Each student is in charge of an item. The list seems to get longer and longer. As soon as they acquire their dishwasher, for instance, they have to think of dishes and towels.

“There are so many things you don’t think of when you’re in the design process,” says Mellum.

Then there’s the continual conversation that the students have with their suppliers: Every time they explain that they have to build the house, take it apart, rebuild it in four days, and then take it apart again, a sponsor replies that houses aren’t meant to be taken apart.

“People don’t really build a house like that,” says Mellum.

“Yeah, we know,” adds Liston. “But we need to.”

September arrives, and the students are running pell-mell. They’re sweating and look exhausted. Today they finished the house, and they’re cleaning up for an open house later this evening. Several hours later, the cleanup finished, it’s time for a photo shoot. Suddenly it feels like a wedding. Here is a bunch of young people, laughing and noisy. For the first time in days, they seem to be taking a breather.

But it’s only a momentary respite. They now have a few days to take the house apart and put the pieces on three semi trucks for the trip east. Then they’ll have to rebuild it in D.C.-keeping up with classes all the while.

“There’s still quite a bit of pressure,” says Read. “It’s been fun for the most part. You feel the stress and pressure, but that’s life.”

Finally, in late September, the students arrive in Washington.  To reassemble the house, the group quickly decides to split into three groups of four. They take shifts-12 hours of working and six of sleep. Unlike some of the other entries, the WSU solar house has suffered little damage on its trip to Washington, and the reassembly goes smoothly. By the time they’re done, they’re exhausted, but pleased.

One quiet day before the opening of the competition, the group receives a visit from a lone jogger-an older gentleman with whom they chat for a while. Later, at a reception hosted by BP Solar at the Hart Senate Office Building, they learn that the man is North Dakota senator Byron Dorgan, cochair of the Renewables and Energy Efficiency Caucus. In his speech at the reception, Dorgan compliments the WSU students on their friendliness.

October 8. At last, the competition begins. The houses are thrown open, thousands of people enter each day, and the students give tours. Then it starts to rain.

Is it some kind cosmic joke that a solar competition should take place in the pouring rain? The area receives more rain in one day than in the previous two months, reports Taylor. Seven inches fall in one day. “It was awful,” he says. Students from a number of schools fight persistent leaks in their houses. They were built, after all, to be taken apart, creating a lot of potential for leakage.

The students take each leak as a lesson in how they could have done things better, says Taylor. Every time a new problem occurs, they laugh and then get to work fixing it.

During the course of the competition, houses are judged in 10 different areas. Running out of energy as the very wet week wears on, the WSU students sometimes have to disqualify themselves from certain phases of the competition because they aren’t able to produce enough electricity to participate. Unlike solar homes which are connected to the power grid and retain ample power when it rains, these houses have no back-up power supply.

Then it’s over, and it’s time for the WSU team to disassemble their house and prepare it for the journey back to Pullman. To Andrea Read, the site looks as if a bomb had gone off. Still, “even though we finished 15th,” she says, “it made everything worth it to have people come in and say, ‘I would really love to live here.'”

“Just seeing the public response to something that we spent so much time on-it was a wonderful feeling,” she says. “That was really the whole meaning of the competition itself. It wasn’t necessarily who was the most energy efficient or who had the biggest battery banks. It was all about educating the public about how comfortable and livable responsible living can be. It showed people it can be done well.”

As of January 2006, the house is scheduled to be relocated to Magnuson Park in Seattle, where it will be on permanent display as a testing facility for high-efficiency building products and as an educational center.


Tina Hilding is communications coordinator in WSU’s College of Engineering and Architecture.