Team Builds a Solar-Powered Home
By Edwin L. Aguirre
Art and Engineering. Separately, they are powerful. Together, they could light up the world.
That’s the idea behind the Solar Decathlon, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in late September in Washington, D.C.
And Team Massachusetts — made up of engineering students from UMass Lowell and architecture students from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design — is the only team from the Commonwealth, and only two from New England, selected to participate in the biennial competition.
The Decathlon challenges students to design, construct and operate solar-powered houses that are innovative, affordable, ultra energy-efficient and attractive. Team Massachusetts will go up against 19 other collegiate teams from the United States, Canada, Belgium, China and New Zealand.
“The Decathlon is an outstanding event and project,” says Walter Thomas, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and UMass Lowell doctoral candidate in solar energy engineering who is participating in the contest as the team’s project engineer.
“It provides the American public an opportunity to see solar technology firsthand and it offers a unique learning opportunity for college students to participate in a large-scale project involving a wide spectrum of technologies,” he says.
A Green Home
Over the past 18 months, Team Massachusetts has been designing and building a 1,000-square-foot house — called the 4D Home — for a family of three that is completely powered by the sun. The goal is to eliminate energy costs for its inhabitants and maybe even create a surplus of power. Take a virtual tour of the home
The 4D Home has three dimensions, plus a fourth one: time. The structure is designed to adapt to the New England environment and living as well as anticipate, over time, the region’s constantly changing seasons, economy and family needs.
The 4D Home features photovoltaic panels to generate electricity, a solar-thermal water heater to provide hot water, thick walls to allow for more efficient insulation, a heat pump and exchanger for cooling/heating the house in summer and winter, and super energy-efficient windows, appliances and lighting. The students hope the 4D Home will serve as a model for home builders and designers creating sustainable dwellings in the Northeast.
The team is planning to assemble the house in Boston the last week of August. Then it will be dismantled, shipped to Washington, reassembled on-site and opened for public viewing for about 10 days. All the houses will be judged in 10 categories: engineering, architecture, comfort zone, energy balance, communications, marketing, affordability, home entertainment, hot water and appliances.
“There are no prizes of any sort, just the honor of being chosen among the top three finalists from around the world,” says Thomas.
The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which runs the competition for DOE, has given each team a $100,000 grant to cover only logistical and administrative costs.
Since May, the team has been actively seeking sponsors and conducting fund drives to raise the more than $500,000 needed for the project. In June, one of the team’s sponsors, Epoch Homes, started fabricating the house at the company’s factory in Pembroke, N.H. Other major sponsors include Nordic Engineered Wood and Saint-Gobain North America.
A Great Learning Experience
UMass Lowell’s Solar Energy Engineering Program combines the expertise of industrial technology, manufacturing, environmental, electrical, chemical, mechanical, and systems engineering students and professionals who have worked on global projects ranging from solar-powered vehicles, advancements toward future development of photovoltaic cell technology to rural electrification projects
powered by the sun.
“The Solar Decathlon has been a great learning experience for all of us,” says Thomas. “We learned how to design and build an actual home from scratch. The energy engineering students on Team Massachusetts learned about architecture, the management students learned about solar technology, and so on. Like any long project, it has had its ups and downs. But we are very excited as our home is finally nearing completion and the competition is less than two months away.”
In addition to Thomas, other members of the UMass Lowell team include Julianne Rhoads, Milo DiPaola, John Connor, Abdelwahed Nabat, Kemmeng Peng, Tim Lee, Erik Jordan, Matthew Polese, Christopher Bradley, Apurav Jain, Raam Perumal, Anant Wadalkar and Srilakshmi Kurmana. Their faculty adviser is Prof. Robert Parkin of the Mechanical Engineering Department.
After the Decathlon, the 4D Home will be disassembled and shipped back to Boston where it will go up for sale. The team prefers it to be used as it was originally intended: a home for a New England family.