Students from Caltech and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) have been chosen to build a green house near the White House. They will compete against teams from around the world in the biennial Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Taking place in October 2011 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the two-week event will challenge teams of university students to design and build the most affordable, attractive, and energy-efficient house they can.
A panel of scientists, engineers, and other experts from the DOE's National Renewable Energy Laboratory selected the SCI-Arc/Caltech team as one of the 20 teams whose proposals and concept designs were the best. Now that they’ve been chosen, the students have 18 months to design, test, and build a state-of-the-art, solar-powered house—and they have to figure out how to transport it across the country and assemble it in the few days leading up to the event. "I can’t think of any other project that I’ve done in the past that even compares in magnitude,"says Fei Yang, one of the student leaders at Caltech.
For the first time, the Decathlon will require the houses to cost $250,000 or less. The houses, which will be open to the public, must be within 600 and 1,000 square feet. The Decathlon’s 10 "events" range from completing certain tasks, such as heating 15 gallons of water in under 10 minutes, to being judged by a panel of experts on such subjective aspects as the aesthetics of the architecture.
SCI-Arc first approached Caltech's chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World, of which Yang is president, to recruit Techers to join the team. Yang, a junior mechanical engineering major, and Ben Kurtz, a junior physics major who helps lead the Caltech crew, say they jumped at the opportunity to get their hands dirty. "I think the difference between this and almost any other research project you can do at Caltech is that this is an immediate opportunity to affect the way things are done in the real world, and the way people live," Kurtz says. Ideally, they hope a contractor will be sufficiently impressed with their design to build and market their house.
As first-time participants coming from small schools, the SCI-Arc and Caltech team members are definitely underdogs, Yang says. Seven faculty members have already offered their guidance and expertise in a series of reading courses, and a new class is in the works for the next term. At this point, fewer than 20 Caltech students are involved. But as the team members proceed past the initial planning stages and toward actual construction, they will need more than a hundred people—and they’re recruiting, Yang says. "We need as much help as we can get," adds Kurtz. "Anybody who wants to help is welcome."
Some of the features of the SCI-Arc-Caltech prototype are angled walls that minimize the amount of heating from the sun and a tilted roof that maximizes energy production from solar panels.
The team is sponsored by the Resnick Institute, which is providing financial support and helping with advising and fundraising."
Listen to an audio podcast about this project.