U of M students build solar house for international competition

Solar house designers
U of M students (left to right) Anders Matney, Shengyin Xu and Joe Messier look over plans for a solar powered house. The three are among dozens of students building the house for a U.S. Department of Energy contest that takes place in Washington D.C. this fall.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

This summer, a group of University of Minnesota students are using what they've learned about architecture, design and energy to build a solar-powered house from the ground up.

The solar-powered house is taking shape inside a University of Minnesota warehouse in Minneapolis. Everyone involved in the construction is a University of Minnesota student; from the workers cutting sheets of lumber, to the architects, engineers and designers poring over house plans.

They're building the house for a U.S. Department of Energy competition this fall in Washington D.C. They'll compete against students from 19 universities across the world currently building their own solar-powered houses.

Judging is based on how well the house can keep up with modern power demands. Solar panels built into the roof must be able to supply electricity to all the home's appliances.

At night, the house will pull in power from the electrical grid to run lights and appliances. But this house will make more solar electricity than it uses, supplying the power grid with a surplus during the day and taking some back at night.

The house will also be judged on its design.

"We're still working on getting the materials to frame out the roof, so what you see is the lower half of the house," said Shengyin Xu, one of the leaders of the project.

Solar house construction
Everyone involved in the construction of the solar house is a University of Minnesota student; from the workers cutting sheets of lumber, to the architects, engineers and designers poring over house plans.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Xu is a 26-year-old graduate student in sustainable design at the University of Minnesota.

It may take imagination, but Xu can see a cozy home taking shape inside the bare walls of this lumber skeleton. She pointed out the living area that will include a couch and, hopefully, a low-energy TV, she said.

This will be a small house when it's finished, only 500 square feet with one bedroom and one bathroom.

"Because it's such a small space, we tried to incorporate some flexibility," said Joe Messier, a U of M student and one of the solar house designers. "Our living room actually can be adapted and become a bedroom [and] we have an alcove that can also function as a bedroom. Our dining space can seat up to 10 guests, even though it's really a house for one or two people."

The cost to build the small house is about $500,000. Grants from the Department of Energy, along with money from the University's Institute on Renewable Energy and the Environment, and donated supplies will help pay the cost.

Solar house
When it's complete later this summer, the U of M solar house will make more electricity than it uses. It will be powered by solar panels incorporated into the home's roof.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

At any rate, the house isn't going to be for sale. But the students hope their project demonstrates how solar power, and energy efficiency measures like insulation, can be incorporated into home construction and remodeling.

And students hope their work shows the public a solar-powered house can be designed to fit into a residential neighborhood.

Shengyin Xu said that since the solar panels will be incorporated into the roof, it's going look like a typical house, not a high-tech invention.

"The product is much more aesthetically pleasing, much more adaptable to the everyday, rather than slapping on some solar panels," Xu said. "It's supposed to be a solar house completely integrated and very well thought out."

When the solar house is complete, it will be broken down into six pieces and reassembled at the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus and open for public tours at the Minnesota State Fair in August.

It's taken apart again in September, and shipped to Washington D.C. where it will be rebuilt on the National Mall for the Department of Energy's solar house competition.

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