A publication of Appalachian Voices


A publication of Appalachian Voices


The Solar Decathlon

Students Build Tomorrow’s Homes Today

By Jeff Deal

Those weren’t spaceships on Washington D.C.’s National Mall in September — they were entries for this year’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

Every two years, the competition challenges teams of college students to design, build and operate solar-powered homes that are affordable to build and maintain, energy-efficient and beautiful. The winner is the group with the highest combined score across 10 categories that evaluate the efficiency, sustainability and the livability of the students homes.

This year, two teams from Appalachia were invited to participate with just 18 other universities from around the world in the creation of these forward thinking homes.

Solar Homestead – Appalachian State University

The 2011 Solar Decathlon People’s Choice Winner, Appalachian State University, has garnered a lot of attention recently. The student-led team’s modular creation, called the Solar Homestead, tied for first in the water heating competition, placed second in the communications category and third in the architecture contest.

Photo courtesy The Solar Homestead

The students’ housing concept was based on the traditional Appalachian homestead: a family, home, outbuildings and land functioning together to produce an independent livelihood.

ASU’s 21st century homestead features a solar energy collecting “trombe” wall in the main house that can absorb and radiate solar warmth in the winter but can be shielded from the sun during summer months, allowing the wall to absorb additional heat inside the dwelling.

Other green features include: roofing constructed from an 8.2 kW solar electric system capable of providing all electricity for the home; innovative dynamic modular construction allowing living space to be added or subtracted on demand; a cutting-edge phase-change solar water heating system; day-lighting galore; and a 900-square-foot, covered breezeway for outdoor living and “porch sitting.”

Living Light – University of Tennessee

Another team of Appalachian students also found a bright spot in this year’s Solar Decathlon. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s entry, Living Light, placed eighth overall in the competition and took third place honors in the engineering and appliance categories.

Photo courtesy Solar Decathalon

The home’s exceptional lighting engineering utilizes programmable blinds sandwiched between two panes of insulated glass to help passively heat the home in winter and cool it in summer. The same structure also provides rich day-lighting to the interior living space.

The Living Light home is powered by a 10.9 kW solar electric system comprised of easily installed cylindrical solar collectors that passively track the sun throughout the day while maintaining a lower operating temperature to increase electricity production. Air quality within the space is maintained by a high efficiency ventilation system that harvests heat from the air in colder months and cools inside air in hotter weather.

In the end, all entries in the 2011 Solar Decathlon brought unique design and vastly different innovative technology solutions to the table, proving an important point — that variety is an attainable spice of sustainable life.

If You Could Only See Them Now

If you didn’t make it to Washington, D.C., to see these “future-is-now” student home designs, you will still have a chance. ASU Chancellor Ken Peacock plans to permanently install the Solar Homestead on the Boone, N.C. campus, while the UT team will take Living Light on a state-wide tour of Tennessee.

Visit solardecathlon.gov to learn more about the 2011 contestants.

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