March 25, 2004

WSU students train for the Solar Decathlon

  • National contest involves building a self-sufficient home and trucking it to Washington, D.C.
    Washington State University

    Solar Decathlon
    Photo courtesy of the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Lab
    The last Solar Decathlon was held in 2002 in Washington, D.C. WSU is entering a home in the 2005 contest.

    Washington State University students in the School of Architecture and Construction Management are embarking on an ambitious project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy called the Solar Decathlon. The contest entails designing, building and delivering a 500- to 800-square-foot house to the National Mall by September 2005.

    The main contest rule states that the house must be completely powered by the sun; there can be no use of fossil fuels or other non-renewable sources for energy.

    Although the contest will take place in Washington, D.C., the eventual home for the building will be in the Seattle area, where it will hopefully become a test bed for innovative building systems.

    The contest has 19 competitors, including many prestigious schools from the East Coast. WSU is the only school from the Northwest. The WSU team is partnering with students and faculty from the College of Engineering, the WSU Energy Extension Office, the Wood Materials and Engineering Lab, the Northwest Solar Center and several companies in the Northwest and Canada.

    The home must provide all of the conveniences of the typical modern home, including refrigeration, heating and cooling, clothes washing and drying, dishwashing, hot and cold running water, lighting and audio/visual appliances. In addition to these basic requirements, the house must charge and operate an electric vehicle.

    The design

    The student-led design team is excited about the competition, but they also believe that the building should serve a more permanent purpose after the competition. Their goal is to have the building be a learning tool, to show people that solar energy and energy-efficient living is not a thing of the future, but a modern-day reality and necessity.

    Solar energy in the Northwest
    Rumor has it that solar energy just won’t work in the cloudy climate of the Northwest.

    It does.

    Yes, systems need to be a bit bigger than in other parts of the country, but we have the distinct advantage of being a moderate climate, which solar energy is ideally suited to.

    Photovoltaic systems (electricity from sunlight) and solar/thermal systems (hot water from the sun) are capable of working well under overcast conditions. Ultra-violet radiation still penetrates an overcast sky, so solar systems still have the opportunity to provide energy without burning anything, damming anything, or costing too much.

    Much of what is “known” about solar is a holdover from the 1970s, but solar has come a long way since then. A very long way.

    Despite receiving limited government subsidies and incentives, renewable energy has survived the oil glut of the 1980s and 90s. The Northwest has the distinct disadvantage of having low electricity and natural gas rates, unlike the rest of the country. There is little incentive in the Northwest to save energy or to seek energy from alternative sources, but recent trends prove differently.

    The Northwest is seeing wind farms pop up all over, a good sign for our region. Wind energy, when combined with hydroelectric energy, represents the maximization of natural resources for energy production without serious environmental damage from burning fossil fuels. When solar energy is added to the mix, the Northwest can become a leader in renewable, sustainable energy.

    The team also has a practical side. They want to demonstrate that limited technology and funds can make a solar-powered house. They are approaching the design from a pragmatic point-of-view: “What will the energy-efficient house of the year 2020 look like?” is the basis from which they are doing the design.

    Since the home needs to be transported to the East Coast and back, there are many design challenges that have to be met within a very limited budget. The design team has decided on a concept of “rapid deployment,” which means they will be designing a building that can be easily transported and set up in a matter of a few days. Their concept is something between manufactured housing, stick-framed housing and temporary housing.


    The task is by nature multi-disciplinary, forcing together ideas about architectural design, engineering and installation, simulation and monitoring of systems, material and system procurement, and other tasks like fundraising and outreach. The program will teach students the entire building process, from conception to occupancy, an idea that is sorely needed in design and engineering education.

    The core team of students is reaching out around the WSU campus, asking for assistance from electrical engineering, mechanical and materials engineering, civil engineering, landscape architecture, interior design, the art department and the business school. The competition has the opportunity to unite all of these disciplines into one worthwhile effort.

    Based on last year’s numbers, over 200,000 people will visit the house once it is placed on the National Mall, so the contest is a great opportunity to get exposure for green technologies from the Northwest. In quite another sense, the contest is a wonderful opportunity to show that WSU and the Northwest can compete at the same level as other more prestigious schools.

    Mat Taylor is an assistant professor of architecture and construction management at Washington State University. He specializes in energy in buildings and high-performance building design.

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