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 Phillip Rollfing  

Solar Decathlon '07

Architecture students ready
for 2007 Solar Decathlon



Texas A&M University architecture students are hard at work designing the home of the future -- their entry in the next Solar Decathlon, an elite competition for which 20 universities build a model-home village on the Mall in Washington, D.C.

Held every two years, the upcoming Solar Decathlon is set for September 2007. Texas A&M was selected as one of the 20 competitors out of an international field based on a written proposal, notes Mark Clayton, architecture professor and department head.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon features teams of college students competing to design, build and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered house, explains faculty adviser and architecture professor Pliny Fisk. The purpose of the decathlon is to educate students, faculty and the public on the benefits of incorporating photovoltaic technology into homes.

“The 800-square-foot homes are evaluated on their ability to generate electricity, charge an electric car, and maintain thermal comfort,” Fisk continues. “And each home also must have ‘curb appeal’.”

Over the summer, students worked with Fisk at the Austin site of his nonprofit foundation, The Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, to come up with preliminary designs, building an initial prototype which was trucked to College Station early in the fall. Now these same students, along with others, including members of Fisk’s senior level design studio, are re-building the prototype structure at the university’s Architecture Ranch, a 12-acre site with a workshop at the Riverside Campus.

“Since bringing it to the ranch, the students have already built, torn down and rebuilt the prototype structural component several times, each time improving our design,” Fisk says. “In addition to getting the structure just right, we’ll be testing our electrical and photovoltaic systems.”

The students’ prototype uses concepts developed by Fisk for his Gro-Home system, which uses a finite system of parts that can fit together in an infinite number of ways, much like the pieces of fabric and the patterns of stitching used to make a quilt, and is based on advanced, fast, economical, healthy building methods from foundation to roof.

“The 21st century brings us numerous challenges with respect to the build and natural environments,” Fisk notes. “Aggie Team 2007, the Texas A&M Solar Decathlon team, has accepted the challenges by reinventing the house as a lifelong home that is affordable, changeable through adding more modules, energy efficient and in harmony with the environment. The students and I envision a new kind of home, a modular system of building that optimizes the triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental sustainability.”

“The event is partially funded by the Department of Energy at a one for five level,” Clayton says. “Although the house will be designed and built by student volunteers, with faculty oversight, we need to raise funds to help defray construction material costs and expenses incurred for moving our house to Washington. We also welcome in-kind contributions of material and expertise.”

Clayton sees the work being done by the Solar Decathlon team as “a springboard to a 10-year initiative focused on sustainable housing for the Gulf rim.

“Homes like that being designed by our team could lead to immediate housing relief for victims of Katrina, Rita and Wilma, many of whom are still living in temporary dwelling structures. And such homes could be a welcome solution to the extensive damage anticipated from inevitable future hurricanes.”

Fisk agrees and adds, “This new type of home could fill a niche in areas without conventional infrastructure and public services, such as the economically disadvantaged Colonias along the Texas-Mexico border. It could serve as a ‘starter’ home that can be expanded or contracted to meet the needs of a family throughout its lifetime.”

Clayton even predicts that the designs and construction methods pioneered by Fisk and the rest of the Solar Decathlon team could be a prototype for re-engineering the housing industry.

“It could be the start of mass customization to build homes that are sustainable, energy efficient and affordable,” Clayton says. “Such homes would use materials and methods that are regionally responsive according to where they are constructed and could stimulate industry in these regions.”

In addition to Fisk and Clayton, Solar Decathlon faculty advisers include architecture and engineering professors Jeff Haberl ,Charles Culp and Jorge Vanegas, who is also director of the university’s Center for Housing and Urban Development. Key collaborators for the project include all three departments of the College of Architecture – architecture, construction science and landscape architecture and urban planning – and three departments from the Dwight Look College of Engineering – electrical, mechanical and civil engineering.

“The last Solar Decathlon saw 125,000 people tour the Solar Village on the Washington Mall,” Fisk says. “I’m excited to see our entry going there for this competition – I envision a ‘Maroon-Out’ on the Mall in the fall of 2007 to celebrate the Aggie Team 2007 Solar Decathlon Home.”

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A preliminary computer visualization of the team's solar home prototype

In order to improve the design of the prototype, students have already built, torn down, and rebuilt it several times

A member of Aggie Team 2007 working hard on the prototype in the Architecture Ranch