National competition on Mall warms interest in solar houses


WASHINGTON -- The home comes with a flat-screen TV, durable concrete counter tops, a deck and bamboo cabinets and floors.

But the best feature of this one-bedroom, wood-frame house - designed, built and put on display in Washington this week by a team of University of Maryland students - is its power source.

The sun.

The house took two years to build and cost $440,000 - a bit steep for 800 square feet, even in today's inflated market. But this one is not for sale at any price. It's one of 18 solar-powered homes built by architecture and engineering students from schools around the country competing in the 2005 Solar Decathlon.

Sponsored primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the contest is held on the National Mall every two years to raise awareness about renewable energy.

There is no cash award for the winners - just bragging rights that they've constructed the nation's best solar-powered house.

Architects, engineers and designers judge the houses in 10 categories that range from architecture to livability. Criteria include the home's appearance, as well as how efficiently it provides energy for everything from hot water to lighting.

The winner will be announced today, but the homes will be open for tours through Sunday. (Be warned: Lines can be long.)

There are some 40,000 solar-powered homes in the United States, and one point of the contest is finding ways to improve them, said Richard J. King, a researcher in the Department of Energy's solar energy division.

He sees a ready market - particularly with the rising prices of home heating fuels. "It is still a niche market, but there's definitely a growing interest out there," King said.

The competition rules are simple: Each entry must generate enough solar power for a small home. Showers must be able to run 10 minutes at 110 degrees. The stoves have to cook three meals a day. The television has to run for six hours. Washers and dryers must be able to clean and dry 12 towels a day - and each house has to generate enough surplus power to run a golf cart-sized electric car.

Contest judges also consider whether the homes can be mass-produced and have enough curbside appeal to attract home buyers.

"It should be a house where the technology isn't shrieking at you, where you have a degree of beauty and functionality and some sense of livability," said Sarah Susanka, a North Carolina-based architect and interior designer who serves as a judge.

The houses can be no larger than 800 square feet - about the size of a mobile home and small enough for trucking cross-country, or in the case of teams from Puerto Rico and Spain, shipped in trans-Atlantic cargo containers.

"Getting here was no easy chore," said Colin McDermott, a member of the University of Michigan team whose aluminum-sided, one-bedroom home, looking something like a Winnebago, arrived in four 20-foot-long trailers.

The University of Maryland home shipped on one large truck, with another for the 51 photovoltaic solar panels that power it.

"I guess we had a home team advantage as far as that goes," said Tom Serra, 23, of Glen Burnie, a UM mechanical engineering graduate who was the team's construction manager.

With its curved roof and western red cedar exterior, the UM house looks like a contemporary cabin.

After the contest, the students will donate the house to the staff at the Red Wiggler Farm, a nonprofit in western Montgomery County that trains the developmentally disabled, said Najahyia Chinchilla, a graduate student at the UM architecture school.

The UM house took a week to erect at the Mall. Serra worked 38 hours nonstop, with much of his effort going to adjust the foundation to make sure the house rested evenly on its 1,400-pound concrete supports.

The elevated design allows the team to store solar batteries and water tanks under the house, Serra said.

The home includes an access ramp for the handicapped that surrounds a garden of Maryland-native plants. Once inside, visitors see an airy kitchen with a 12-foot ceiling, skylight windows and a ceiling fan.

The solar panels, mounted on the roof, each produce a maximum of 175 watts, providing sufficient heat through tubes that run under the house and heat thermal mats in the floor. A solar water heater, on the south side of the house, produces heat for a 150-gallon hot water tank.

There are 32 batteries under the house to store electricity for use when there's little sunlight.

The students selected appliances based on their energy efficiency: the light fixtures are compact fluorescent bulbs, while the flat-panel television is more efficient than a traditional set. The 6-inch-thick walls make the home as airtight as possible.

The stove heats food with an electromagnetic field, and a combined washer-dryer spins clothes after washing them, drying them without heat.

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