Solar Decathlon team selected to compete in national contest

Sarah Haas

Iowa State’s Solar Decathlon team was one of 20 selected to compete in the United States Department of Energy’s fourth Solar Decathlon in 2009.

Based on an intricate proposal submitted by the team, it was chosen from 25 colleges and universities from across the nation. Each team was awarded $100,000 by the Department of Energy to design, build and operate an attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered house.

Ulrike Passe, assistant professor in architecture, is the team’s leading faculty member. She and other faculty members in the architecture department decided nearly a year and a half ago that the Solar Decathlon is a worthwhile project for Iowa State.

“I think green building like this is important because we have a responsibility to our environment and to our society, and I think for a long time we have not used available resources properly,” Passe said. “The sun is one of them. The technology to capture the sun has been neglected for a long time, and with this project we can show its usefulness.”

The structure was named the Interlock House to emphasize how all of the different components work together to create an energy-efficient home.

“The design is happening at this moment, so we have a workshop with students and faculty from various departments and disciplines working together, and we really want to incorporate all of these ideas that show the intuition and creativity of students to come together,” Passe said. “So it’s about interlocking disciplines, inside and outside spaces and different systems working together.”

Nearly a dozen faculty members and more than 100 students are actively participating in the project, said David Gustafson, senior in mechanical engineering and president of Solar Decathlon club. Students with backgrounds ranging from Web design to construction engineering are collectively working on the project.

There are four subgroups of students: planning, architecture, engineering and construction. Within each subgroup, two student project managers work to ensure the individual projects being completed by students can eventually pull together to become an energy-efficient house.

“Some students receive credit, whether through taking our classes that are incorporated with this or by signing up for independent study for a variety of engineering and architecture disciplines,” Gustafson said.

Students are currently active in workshops ranging from architecture to communication and Web design.

Other students are working through the Solar Decathlon club without receiving credits.

A key component to the project right now is fundraising.

“We already have $200,000 promised by the National Renewable Energy laboratory in addition to the $100,000,” Gustafson said. “We expect to have a lot more fundraising, especially in terms of the materials that we will use in the house. We are going to have quite a bit of outreach to Iowa companies, and we hope to bring together a lot of Iowa resources to really show the valuable assets available here.”

The team’s ability to market itself to potential clients is one of the 10 categories in which it will be graded when the teams meet at Washington D.C.’s National Mall in the fall of 2009 after completing their houses. The other nine categories are architecture, engineering, communications, comfort zone, appliances, hot water, lighting, energy balance and transportation. The team with the most points will win.

Iowa State’s emphasis on research will be an asset to the prospects of the house, Gustafson said.

“I think Iowa State is really poised to do well in this competition because we have such a strong foundation in research,” Gustafson said. “We have many excellent faculty who are supporting this project and a lot of grad students working on it. From new biocomposites to an innovative solar technology, the end result will use lots of different projects that work together.”

Yet Passe believed that merely by competing, ISU students will have an exceptional experience.

“It will be a once in a lifetime opportunity for them as students. It’s a great learning opportunity because they are not only building a house, but they are learning how to integrate their knowledge of whatever their field is into this one project,” she said.

“I’m very excited that there are so many students participating. I see there is a strong understanding and will from the students to change things.”