If you want to feel good about the millennial generation and its ability to design and build stuff that’s fresh and sustainable (i.e. that won’t mess up the planet any further), then think about paying a visit to the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, this October. There, on the site of an old air base, you’ll find 20 solar-powered homes, one more inventive than the next. Yes, it’s time for the Department of Energy’s biennial solar building fest—the Solar Decathlon. This year promises to be even better than 2011, and that was pretty good.
The home here is the entry from Stevens Institute of Technology, in New Jersey. Called Ecohabit, it has several innovative elements: each room has sensors collecting data on light intensity, temperature and humidity. When someone is in the room, a central management system adjusts conditions; when they leave, it shuts off again, ensuring maximum efficiency. The system also provides alerts, recommending actions to take (e.g. turn down the thermostat), and is programmed for 20 years of Southern Californian weather, so it will act differently depending on the date.
The interior walls are covered with "phase-change materials" that absorb heat during the day (when you’re trying to cool down) and give off heat at night (when you want it). A rainwater harvesting system collects 100% of rainfall and distributes it to a green roof (which protects the house from harmful rays) and a green wall, which provides extra insulation (apart from looking pretty).
There’s also a mechanism for collecting condensate from the air conditioning units (the stuff that normally falls on your head as you’re walking down the street) and uses it to cool down the outside HVAC with a fine mist. And, the hot water system sucks in heat from the air, keeping water warm, so you don’t need to heat it so much when you take a shower.
The 850-square-foot roof is covered in a new type of solar shingle from Dow Chemical. They act much like solar panels, but look nicer. Rather protruding out, they fit like standard asphalt tiles and don’t need a special racking system. The team says they can produce about 10,000 kilowatt hours of energy a year—which is near the consumption of a (far less efficient) average American home (11,280 kWh, according to the Energy Information Administration).
To design and build the house, Stevens brought together 60 students from engineering, design, architecture and computer science, both under- and post-grad. The house is currently sitting in Hoboken, overlooking Manhattan, but will soon travel to the site in California. The competition itself is divided into 10 categories, covering criteria like "market appeal," "affordability," and the ability of the house to provide hot water at all times. The idea is to test the full range of the students’ skills and thinking, not just to have houses that are good at one or two things.
The student teams come together for weekly meeting to discuss the homes. Julie Farrell, a faculty-member overlooking the students, says the process provides students with useful transferable skills. "Being able to communicate with one another is one of their biggest learning experiences. They’re also learning all the latest and greatest sustainability aspects, so they’ll be able to enter the green workforce."
The students aren’t in it just to take part, though. "It’s definitely about winning," says William Hazen, who helped design the plumbing system for the house. "We owe it to the school and the area. We need to win, or come close to it."