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U's ICON solar house: a model for Minnesotan "green" living

LL_iconic_house2-1.JPGTours open in late August on the St. Paul campus

For as long as people have been building homes, the sun has played a role in design and architecture. Yet even today, in our ever-growing "green conscious" society, only a fraction of buildings make use of solar energy for power needs.

Now, a team of University of Minnesota students, faculty and alumni is working to make solar technology more accessible for the average Minnesota homeowner.

They are building an entirely solar-powered house that's especially designed for the Minnesota climate, and hope that Minnesotans can take away a few tips and tricks for their own homes.

The house is being built for the 2009 Solar Decathlon competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. This international competition for college and university students is designed to educate participants--and the general public--about the benefits of energy efficiency, renewable energy, and green building technologies.

Typically held every other year, the event is a three-week showcase in Washington, D.C., in which 20 teams compete to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house. The teams spend nearly two years working on their plans and preliminary construction. It is an intense and complicated effort that brings together students from a variety of disciplines, including architecture, engineering, design, and construction.

Teams design and build their homes at a location of their choosing, and then in October, houses are shipped to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and reassembled on site. During the competition itself, the teams receive points for their performance in 10 contests and open their homes to the public. This year, judging will be held October 8-16, with the homes open to the public October 9-13 and 15-18.

2009 marks the first time that the University of Minnesota has fielded a Solar Decathlon entry.

The U of M Solar Decathlon project manager, Ann Johnson, says she's been blown away by the level of competition.

"In September of 2007, when I was asked to serve as project manager on this job, I said 'oh, sure, that sounds great, I can do that'--without really even knowing what Solar Decathlon was. I was pretty much thinking of an ice-house type house...small, not much to it, etc. Do you know how surprised I was when two weeks later I arrived in Washington and toured the 2007 houses? These are most definitely NOT ice houses," she says with a laugh.

The houses are, in fact, about as far away from ice houses as you can get. Teams design and construct an approximately 800 square-foot home that is full of modern conveniences, architecturally beautiful, aesthetically pleasing--and entirely solar powered. Each team's home must use its energy systems to maintain the house within a certain temperature range, to provide lighting, to run appliances, and to perform other functions of daily life.

In addition, the homes need to be practical; all the products used in the plans must be commercially available for anyone to buy for their own homes. The teams also need to come up with a viable marketing plan for their home.

The U of M home, ICON house, faced its own unique challenges, including the mercurial nature of the Minnesota climate. "A lot of people may think, 'gee, Minnesota? Really?' when it comes to solar power," says Johnson. "But I hope this house does a lot to dispel that. Photovoltaic solar power is quite efficient in this area of the country--more so, in fact, than somewhere like Arizona where it can actually get TOO hot. So our design is built to maximize that efficiency."

She goes on to say that the house is designed to appeal to a Midwestern aesthetic. "The house is called ICON, because we hope that's what it feels like to people. If you asked someone to sketch a picture of a house, I think you'd come up with something that resembles our house. It's recognizable (despite being modern), and would fit right at home on a lot in, say, Northeast Minneapolis or St. Louis Park. It's attractive and efficient...but not a 'Jetsons' house."

She continues, "You know, there are houses in this competition from all over--and they each have their own market. For us, we wanted to design something that folks around here would look at and say, 'Yeah. I could see that in my neighborhood.'"

That "accessible to the general public" is exactly what the founders of Solar Decathlon had in mind, says Johnson. "That's part of the whole purpose of the contest--to educate the public, to show them doing something like this IS possible today, in their own neighborhood. For example, since becoming involved in the project and learning more, I've decided to look into photovoltaic panels for my own home in the near future."

"It doesn't have to be all of the stuff in the house; you can certainly do one or two things. But for someone who is interested, everything in the house is available right now. In fact, many of the things we are using showcase Minnesota technologies and companies, including special glass from Marvin Windows, as well as low VO2 paints from Valspar. It may be a high-tech house, but it is certainly not inaccessible."

Members of the public can see the ICON house when it opens for free tours on the St. Paul campus from late August through mid-September. During this time, the U's team will be practicing for the tours they must deliver during the Washington, D.C. phase of the competition. Tour schedules will be posted on the U's Solar Decathlon Web site.

The site also holds more information about the ICON house design (Click on "Our House"), and has links to the Web sites of the other teams competing in the competition.

The ICON house will also be open for tours in Washington, D.C., during the competition itself.

"By all means," Johnson says, "come out and see what an amazing job these students have done. Between the hundreds of students, the various faculty, staff, and University departments, and the businesses and volunteers from all over...the ICON house has truly become a state project. I certainly hope people take the chance to do the tour, maybe learn a little bit more about how they can put this type of design into play in their own lifestyles--if only a little bit."

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