Rain doesn’t spoil solar home exhibition on Mall

It may have been a cloudy, rainy day on the mall Saturday, but that did not keep a cluster of solar-powered homes between the Capitol and the Washington Monument from operating.

For the past two weeks, 30 different teams from universities around the country and abroad have been assembling their portable, environmentally friendly homes on the Mall for the Solar Decathlon. GW did not compete in the event, which is organized by the Department of Energy and will judge the students’ homes on a number of factors.

All of the dwellings, which are slightly larger than a traditional mobile home, must provide power to appliances, lighting and heating systems exclusively from solar cells. Competing teams will also be judged on their designs and ability to power and drive a street-legal, commercially available electric vehicle.

Despite a Saturday with no sun, Brandon Lingenferser, a third-year architecture major on Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s team, said his group’s house would have enough electricity from solar power stored in batteries.

“We just don’t get as much power out of (the solar panels on a cloudy day),” he said. “But one charge on the battery can last up to three days.”

Lingenferser said his team’s design, which featured an arched roof, modern construction and translucent walls, had a number of significant advantages over competitors, including solar panels that tilted to generate a maximum amount of power. He said that their home actually generates more electricity than it uses.

“Your meter actually runs backwards, so you can sell power back to the energy providers,” he said.

Chip Clark, a fifth-year architecture student on the Virginia team, added that his team’s structure naturally heats and cools the interior space through a hollow, translucent wall with a special insulation.

“You can build heat up in these walls over the winter up to 140 degrees. Then it can be slowly radiated into the house,” he said, adding that the panels can be lit up with different colors. “In the summer, you open up these vents, and it pulls cold air out from under the house.”

But at $3.2 million, the futuristic house may not fit into the budget of the average American, no matter how environmentally conscious he or she is. The University of Missouri-Rolla and Rolla Technical Institute, however, focused their design on a more realistic consumer market.

Allison Arnn, a senior on the team, said they stuck to a $200,000 budget and designed a house to look more traditional, with wood accents, solid walls and well-defined rooms.

“I think in order to counteract the Homer Simpson notion that solar is a pipe dream, we need to create traditional-looking houses,” she said.

Arnn added that the structure’s solar array, which lies on the same panels that heat water through copper pipes, can be easily assembled.

“Anyone can install it. It’s just peel and stick, like a Band-Aid,” she said.

The architecture major said that so-called green homes are already commercially viable on the East and West coasts, but can become more expensive in other parts of the country.

Jonathan Deason, a professor of engineering and applied science at GW, said it might be a while before highly energy-efficient homes become the norm, since many materials used in green construction come with a high initial price tag.

“The benefit of having these kind of houses isn’t reflected in the financial aspect for most developers,” said Deason, who added that the government should create more incentives to reward people who build energy-efficient homes.

Deason said homes similar to those competing in the Solar Decathalon will play a key role in the nation’s energy future, which will rely on a broad mix of renewable and non-renewable resources.

Aside from their high costs, some of the homes on the Mall also required up to two years to design. Jeremy Forsythe a fifth-year architecture major on a team representing three Pittsburgh-area schools, said his group’s design process dated back to summer 2005.

“We started construction on June 6 and just finished a couple of days ago,” said the Carnegie Mellon University student, whose project incorporated a house with slanted walls and an angled roof that gives the occupant a somewhat off-balance feel. “From a student’s standpoint, being able to stand inside part of something that you’ve designed is incredible.”

Rob Murray, a member of University of Maryland’s team who graduated last spring while their home was still being designed, said the finished product will not remain just a concept but will be put into real-world service at a community farm for individuals with Down syndrome in Germantown, Md.

“It’s a win-win situation since they need a place to house their staff and we need a place to put it,” he said.

The overall winner of the competition will be announced on Friday, and the houses will be available for viewing all week long.

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