University to develop solar house for contest

By Brian Mellen

Faculty members and students at the University are currently developing a solar powered house for a student competition in Washington D.C.

Along with 19 other colleges from around the globe, University students will be entering their own solar powered house to compete in the Solar Decathlon 2007. As the U.S. Department of Energy’s Web site states, the ultimate goal of the competition is “to design, build and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient solar powered home.”

The teams from each school will be judged based on ten contests to determine the overall winner. The school that wins the most overall contests wins the competition. The different categories used for judgment include areas like the overall design of the building as well as the energy-efficiency of the home. In order to build these homes, students and faculty in many different areas of expertise have become involved with the project.

Michael McCulley, associate professor of architecture, who recently left his post as associate dean, said students in architecture have shown particular interest. He said there are over 200 students who would like to contribute.

“We have all this enthusiasm.” McCulley said. “We have to harness it in a particular direction.”

McCulley was one of the people who started the project. Even though the U.S. Department of Energy provided the project with a $100,000 grant to start operations, McCulley said more money is required. The University is also contributing money for the house. Total costs are expected to be around $500,000.

“In some ways, (the costs are) only the seed because you have to go out and look for support from other places,” McCulley said.

McCulley said one of the greatest challenges facing the undertaking is getting everything organized.

Jason Wheeler, graduate student, is one of the team leaders involved in architecture.

“We’re going to be teaching all of the students that are involved in the project about what it takes to build a sustainable house,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said most of the students are volunteers and others are participating as part of an independent study.

The competition is not until Fall 2007 and Illinois’ team will face schools like Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Colorado, the returning champion.

The competitions have been held about every two years since 2002.

Wheeler already foresees Illinois’ team doing well when it is finally time to face the judges.

“We’ll do well across the board,” Wheeler said. “We may not take first individually in each one of the competitions, but we have a really solid presence in all of the areas.”

Wheeler said one of the competition’s goals is to increase public awareness of solar power.

“As energy costs are increasing in terms of fuel, all of a sudden people become more interested in alternative energy sources,” Wheeler said.

The competition takes place at the National Mall in D.C. Wheeler hopes that, because of the location, it will draw some attention from the media and politicians.

Trishan Esram, who is the student leader for the electrical engineering portion of the project, can’t start work just yet. He is waiting on the architecture team to finish designing the roof, where the solar panels will go.

“We’re still working on stuff, working together,” Esram said. “I see a really big future in having a house that runs on solar power.”