U.S. Department of Energy asks students to compete

A group of IT students will compete in the Solar Decathlon.

TCF Bank Stadium isn’t the only University construction project going vertical.

A team of University students has been selected by the U.S. Department of Energy to participate in the third Solar Decathlon, a competition in which teams from colleges around the world gather in Washington, D.C. to design, build and maintain energy-efficient, solar-powered homes.

The team from the University, a student group called “Solar Decathlon at UM,” is one of 20 teams selected from around the world. It’s also the first Minnesota team to participate in the competition, which will take place over the course of a week in fall 2009.

Ann Johnson, director of the University’s construction management program and a program director for the decathlon team, said the project will be a big collaboration for the students involved.

“It’s one of the biggest multi-disciplinary projects that the ‘U’ has ever done,” she said. “They have never built anything like this that has been student-driven.”

Johnson said the decathlon process will cover multiple disciplines, such as design and technology, and others such as marketing as well.

“It’s just huge,” she said. “It’s going to be so much fun.”

Shengyin Xu, an architecture graduate student and the president of the University’s Solar Decathlon team, said the process is in the research and designing phase.

“We’re well on our way in researching and trying to figure out a way to have a lot of the things we’ve been talking about come to fruition,” Xu said.

To aid in the project, Xu said certain classes were created to address the components of constructing an energy-efficient house.

Xu said design plans are due in early June. Construction will begin next fall, Johnson said. The team hopes to have their house on display by graduation the following spring.

When the competition begins next fall, the teams will have a few days to put together the pieces of their project on the National Mall and then will be judged on 10 categories focusing on energy efficiency, livability and design. No actual prize or compensation is awarded for the winning group.

Xu said no one will live in the house, but it has to support “daily living functions,” such as running computers and laundry machines, as well as cooking food.

Jonee Kulman Brigham, a research co-coordinator for the University’s Center for Sustainable Building Research, said the new courses focus on energy-efficient building aspects such as solar thermal power, electrical systems and ways to integrate the technology into a building.

“It’s not just a matter of sticking technology on a building,” she said. “It’s a very integrated approach.”

The total cost of the project is expected to reach $1 million. The U.S. Department of Energy will contribute $100,000 to the project, as will the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment. The rest will come from donations, Johnson said.

Johnson said the design will have a very “Minnesotan” feel.

“We’re really going to focus on our cold climate, our pioneer spirit in Minnesota, and I’m guessing our design will reflect the cold weather we experience here,” she said.

Kulman Brigham said the design approach right now looks at biomimicry, a design plan that uses nature as a model, as well as lifecycle analysis, which is meant to find a purpose for the house beyond the competition alone.

“We’re taking the long view, which isn’t unusual for sustainability,” she said. “It really is a research and development model home.”