Missouri, Rolla university students team up for solar decathalon

Monday, July 14, 2008 | 7:26 p.m. CDT; updated 12:52 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 24, 2008
MU student Brandon Neish, center, explains design changes he made to classmate Heather Benson, left, and their instructor, Barbara Buffaloe, on MU's campus on Monday. The students are considering the environment, including sunlight and wind, to help design an efficient and comfortable house.

COLUMBIA — From conception to competition, it’s a demanding 16-month process. But it ends with a dinner party.

Students from MU’s Department of Architectural Studies and the Missouri University of Science and Technology’s School of Engineering in Rolla have been meeting since January 2007 to design a house powered entirely by the sun for the 2009 Solar Decathalon project.


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The Rolla team has been competing since September of 2005, however this will be MU’s first competition.

Designing the house is only half of it. Team members — about 40 students — will then drive their overstocked trailer to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where they will spend less than a week constructing it on site for the month-long competition. The exact dates for the competition have not been announced, but it will be held during the fall of 2009.

There are many hoops to jump through before the trip can even begin, such as getting clearance to transport the wide load on the highways of every state they will drive through.

The contest is a biennial competition that will draw 20 teams of college students from around the world, including Spain, Puerto Rico, Germany and Canada.

“We’re up against Germany,” Anna Fleischer, MU senior and interior design director of the team said. “They won last year. We have a lot to live up to.”

The Show-Me Solar Team was born after the 2007 Solar Decathlon in which Missouri S&T placed 20th out of 20 teams in architecture. The Rolla campus “doesn’t have an interior design program,” said Katie Lough, assistant professor of interdisciplinary engineering at Missouri S&T. “So we wanted to partner with another school to bring that to the table.”

The result is an 800-square-foot house that draws in the beauty of shafts of natural light, clean, modern tile patterns and shutter-paneled walls. But aesthetics must not trump efficiency because the house must generate enough solar power to run appliances such as the stove, washer, dryer and shower. And, of course, a dinner party and a movie.

That’s where the rubber meets the road. Throughout the weeklong event, each team will host two other teams to a dinner party and then have another two teams over for a movie, said Barbara Buffaloe, a housing and environmental design instructor in the MU Department of Architectural Studies. The two events will exhibit the house’s entertainment abilities, test comfort and ultimately award the students with some well-deserved fun.

“Assuming it’s too late for other teams to change their plans, I’ll tell you a secret: We’re planning on having a hydroponic system for gardening inside the house so we can grow the food we’re serving during the dinner party in the house,” Fleischer said.

Students will score the house that hosts them on entertainment capacity and comfort. Otherwise, the judges are supposed to score less subjectively this year than in previous years, Lough added.

Scoring is done at the end of the week and is based on each home’s design, operation and overall success in 10 areas. They include architecture, engineering, market variability, communications, comfort zone, appliances, hot water, lighting, home entertainment and net metering, Buffaloe said.

Net metering is to be judged differently next year. In a normal house, there is an electric meter that measures how much electricity the house is using. But with net metering and solar panels, the meter runs backwards because the panels generate more electricity than they’re using. In prior years, the houses were able to use batteries to store power and use it later on, said Michael Goldschmidt, housing and environmental design Extension specialist.

This year, all the houses are tied to an electric grid so at night, when there’s no sun, the houses will be using power from the grid like a normal house, Goldschmidt said. “More energy gets put back into that grid than is being used, so the meter spins backwards. Then at night, that stored energy will be used, so the meter spins forwards. All the houses will have a meter, and they will all start at zero. Whatever team has the lowest number wins, making that the team that generated more power than they actually used.”

The decathlon draws hundreds of thousands of people who wait in line to get a peek at the state-of-the art houses.

The U.S. Department of Energy gives each team $100,000 to spend toward designing and building the houses. Approximately $400,000 more is needed per team to effectively construct the house so that it meets all of the requirements.

“The hardest part is finding that extra funding,” Lough said. “Some companies will even donate products, such as Whirlpool, who we are hoping to get our appliances from.”

The majority of the extra funding comes from alumni or other contributors. At the end of the day, if enough money isn’t raised, the universities step in to foot the bill, Lough said.

Participating in this competition gives MU architecture students the chance to work with engineers as they would in the real world, teaching them how to foster relationships and work with different disciplines, Buffaloe said.

It also allows them to apply their mathematical and architectural skills, as well as create more energy-efficient alternative sources while educating the public about solar energy.

According to the Solar Nation organization, the United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population, but is responsible for 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The Solar Decathlon promotes a switch to solar energy, as well as providing house design alternatives, according to the competition’s Web site.

The teams are not competing for cash. Instead, the winning team is awarded prestige. “That’s really all we’re asking for,” Buffaloe said.

“The prize is getting to say you won the Solar Decathlon and hopefully any job that you want afterwards,” Fleischer added.

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Ellis Smith October 1, 2010 | 6:35 a.m.

A solar home "village" is nearing completion at Missouri S&T. The homes were originally built to exhibit in national competitions held in Washington, D. C. Recently, some students from MU have participated in designing the homes.

The homes will be lived in; they are not just for display. Their energy efficiency will continue to be monitored.

Landscaping is part of the "village" project, but there will be no trees.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking October 1, 2010 | 6:47 a.m.

Must these houses also heat themselves with solar energy? Or is it just electricity?


(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 1, 2010 | 7:11 a.m.

My understanding is that it's the whole nine yards.

Sorry, but I don't have a personal connection to this project*, just to the solar-powered racing cars, which have neither heaters nor air conditioning (nor headlights - but they do have stop lights and turn signals).

*- I've viewed the houses and the village site, but I don't have much in the way of specifics.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith October 1, 2010 | 10:45 a.m.

Should you be in the vicinity of Rolla, the "village" is easy to find. Coming south from Columbia on US 63, go over I-44 and continue on US 63, which bends right and then left. It's Bishop Avenue, and it was once part of Route 66. After the second bend you are going due south. At 10th Street, turn right. The "village" is on the right a block after turning.

Because the houses are occupied you can't barge in to see inside. Possibly inside views could be arranged.

(Report Comment)

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