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U. of I. team is top U.S. finisher in Solar Decathlon competition

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The moon shines over the Gable House, the University of Illinois team's entry in the 2009 Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The Illinois team won second-place honors in the competition.

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10/16/2009 | Melissa Mitchell, News Editor | 217-333-5491; melissa@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – A team of students from the University of Illinois won second place today (Oct. 16) in the 2009 Solar Decathlon design competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

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The U. of I.'s Gable House was designed with conservation of energy, cost and comfort in mind. According to its designers, the home would be a perfect fit for a young couple starting out, or for retirees. | Photo by U.S. Department of Energy | View video.

Winners of the international contest were announced this morning in Washington, D.C., by U.S. Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman.

The interdisciplinary team from Illinois designed a super-energy-efficient, solar-powered residential dwelling it calls “the Gable Home.”

“As I kept saying, we never could guarantee first place, but we could guarantee a first-place effort,” said electrical and computer engineering professor Patrick Chapman, one of the team’s lead faculty advisers, who oversaw engineering efforts on the project.

“We’re very happy to get second place,” said architecture professor and project manager Mark Taylor, who added that Illinois “just couldn’t beat a house wrapped in solar panels,” referring to the house designed by the German team, which won first place.

The Illinois team’s highly insulated, 800-square-foot house borrows its design from a familiar Midwestern architectural vernacular and is constructed largely from recycled, reclaimed wood and engineered bamboo and is outfitted with a rooftop array of solar panels. The house was designed to meet Passive House standards set by the Passive House Institute US.

According to another of the team’s faculty advisers, industrial design professor David Weightman, the home has “more solar panels than would be required for normal operation, due to the particular nature of the competition requirements.”

“It requires very little heating in Illinois during the winter months,” he said. “In fact, it can produce three to four times the output of power that it needs.”

Weightman said that the Illinois team’s second-place finish is a belated tribute to the pioneering work done in passive solar and energy-efficient housing design done at the School of Architecture at Illinois in the 1970s by Mike McCulley and others.

Weightman also credited all the students who labored long and hard on the project, including graduate student Joe Simon, the lead student project manager, and lead student engineering adviser Sairaj Dhople.

The Gable House, originally constructed on the U. of I. campus, recently was disassembled, then trucked to Washington D.C., where it was reassembled for the competition last week on the National Mall in a temporary “neighborhood” known as the Solar Village.

The home, along with its 19 competitors designed by teams of college students from across the United States and Europe, will remain on the mall through Sunday (Oct. 18), where it will be open to visitors.

Core members of the Illinois team are undergraduate and graduate students from the colleges of Engineering and Fine and Applied Arts, Weightman said. About 200 students in all participated in the project, including others from the colleges of Business and Media.

According to the Solar Decathlon Web site, goals of the competition included education of participants on the benefits of energy efficiency, renewable energy and green building technologies; raising public awareness of these practices; encouraging research, development and marketability of solar energy technologies; fostering educational cooperation among students and institutions; and promoting an integrated, “whole building design” approach to new construction.

Other goals included demonstrating the potential of zero-energy homes, which produce as much energy from renewable sources such as the sun and wind, as they consume.

The competition included tests in 10 areas ranging from architecture, comfort, livability and market viability to how well the solar homes provide energy for space heating and cooling, hot water, lights and appliances.

The Illinois team won first place in three competition categories: hot water, appliances, and home entertainment. It also won second place in lighting design, comfort, and net metering.

“Our house also was the second most affordable on the mall,” Taylor said. “The important message of our house is that it was not only designed for the style of Illinois, but for what people have in their pockets.”

Teams selected to compete were initially provided with $100,000 in seed money from DOE; additional funds to complete projects then had to be solicited by the teams.

This is the second time U. of I. students have participated in the biennial competition, which began in 2002.

Weightman said that the biggest departure for the university’s 2009 team, compared with the one that designed the “Elementhouse” in 2007, was the decision to use a fabricator to produce a shell of the team’s design, rather than fabricate it themselves. That decision to have the shell manufactured by Homeway Homes, of Deer Creek, Ill., saved time and effort that otherwise would be devoted to frame construction and allowed the students to focus on the home’s heating and cooling, internal systems and interior design needs.

The final result, he said, “is not a big house, but it is still a spacious-feeling home.” Its intended occupants, he added, would be either “young people starting out, or a retired couple.”

In addition to Homeway Homes, a number of commercial sponsors contributed to the home’s design success of the home and its contents. They include Kohler, Optiwin, Valcucine, Lamboo Inc. and Crate&Barrel.

Weightman also credited Chicago’s Merchandise Mart for assistance in brokering materials used in the home.

More information about the Gable Home is available on the Illinois team’s home page.

Editor's note: To contact Weightman, call 217-778-3752, e-mail diw@uiuc.edu. To contact Taylor, call 778-818-2951; mstaylor@illinois.edu. To contact Chapman, call 217-333-4694, pichapma@illinois.edu.
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