Going to the Mall

U solar decathlon team to showcase its solar house at international competition in Washington, D.C.

If you saw the description for this house in a Parade of Homes guide, it might just catch your attention.

Cozy, south-facing living and dining rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows. Bright, contemporary dining area with space to seat 10. Radiant floor heating for extra comfort in the winter. Three-season porch and 2,000-square-foot deck. Skewed gable roof design...

Huh? Skewed gable roof design?

In this case, the skewed gable is not an architectural abnormality; it's what defines the house built by some 150 students from the University of Minnesota to compete in the upcoming international Solar Decathlon contest in Washington, D.C.

The U's ICON house, named for how its asymmetrical roof may come to symbolize solar homes in the future, is powered entirely by the sun. It has solar panels aplenty plus the latest in energy-efficient materials. In fact, the house can generate 13 months of energy over a 12-month period, meaning it could conceivably have energy to spare for the power grid.

And it was conceived, designed, and built by U students representing colleges from every discipline related to housing, including the College of Design, Institute of Technology (IT), College of Continuing Education, Carlson School of Management, and College of Liberal Arts. If there were an entry for "collegiate interdisciplinarity" in the encyclopedia, a picture of the ICON solar house would be next to it.

"It provides an unparalleled opportunity for students to work across colleges," says Ann Johnson, the team project manager and a faculty member in civil engineering. "We have civil engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering students coming from IT; we have landscape architecture, architecture, interior design, and graphic design coming from the College of Design; and then we have construction. It's an unparalleled opportunity to work across colleges, but it's also an opportunity to work on a real-life project."

"I'm deeply proud of the work we do at the University of Minnesota to find solutions to the most pressing concerns facing our world, such as alternative energy and sustainability," says University President Robert Bruininks. "The Solar Decathlon is particularly exciting because it brings people from a wide range of disciplines together to solve practical problems. Students learn from the experience of designing and constructing what may prove to be the house of the future, and in the process they inspire our imagination and redefine what is possible today."

One of the overarching goals was to come up with a house that was appealing to the general public, from the facades of the exterior to the comforts of the interior.

"There are many houses you might see at the Solar Decathlon that are not warm or beautiful," says Johnson. "A lot of them look like a box full of technology. We made a very, very specific effort to make our house accessible, warm, comfortable, and familiar—something that was iconic. We want this to become something that can be implemented and become an iconic part of our culture. I know it sounds grand but it's really true."


Americans are used to the look of gables on homes, and the U's house retains that look, with an eye toward the future. "Our thought is that the skewed gable would become an icon for solar housing," says Shengyin Xu, the architecture team leader.

"It's an unparalleled opportunity to work across colleges, but it's also an opportunity to work on a real-life project," says Johnson.

Whether or not the ICON logo and shape become standards for the industry, there are components of the house that are worthy of admiring, if not immediately emulating.

The solar panels, of course, stand out as a shining example. The main array of 30 panels produces more than enough power for the home, which has an 800-square-foot footprint. A secondary array absorbs direct light on the front and reflected light on the back for maximum energy production. And a thermal array provides the energy for hot water and radiant floor heating.

The student builders heavily insulated the walls and roof to values of R-50 and R-70, respectively. The east and west windows contain electrochromic glass, which can take a small amount of electricity to activate a tinted film that reduces the amount of sunlight that can pass through. And where possible, the house uses recycled materials and products made in Minnesota.

Late last week, the team worked to put the finishing touches on the house—external, internal, and systems—and they conducted brief tours for the media and the public. Beginning September 23, the team will disassemble the house into seven modules and load them onto seven trucks for transport to Washington, D.C. 

That's where things will get interesting. Beginning October 1, the team will have just under a week to reassemble the house, complete with 2,000-square-foot deck, small lawn, and landscaping that reflects its Minnesota roots.

"It will be a challenge," says Xu, who notes that the team will be working in shifts around the clock. "It's doable, I think. We've been scheduling our six and a half days down to the minute.

"Our goal is to send pretty much a completed house to D.C. and then do touch-ups and [completion work] when we get there."

The Solar Decathlon takes its name from the 10 categories or "events" that the entrants will be judged on. Five are considered "objective" categories: comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and net metering; and five are "subjective": architecture, market viability, engineering, lighting design, and communications.

Perhaps more important than which team wins the decathlon, the ideas, technology, and blueprints will live on. The design specifications will become the property of the U.S. Department of Energy after the competition, Johnson says, but anyone will be able to download the house plans.

What will ultimately happen to the U team's house? It may be moved to University property for demonstration purposes, but there's also the chance it could be sold to a private owner. "Two people have offered to buy the house from me," Johnson says.  

That might be a very good indication that the solar house students produced a house with lasting appeal.

For more information on the project and to check out the team's blog, visit Solar Decathlon.