The Solar Decathlon is a competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy, challenging teams to build energy-efficient solar homes. This year, Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey is one of the 20 teams to enter the competition. I took a tour of the ultra-efficient little house, which is under construction in Hoboken before it makes a cross-country trip to Irvine, Calif. where the judging will take place in early October.
Nicknamed "EcoHabit," the house has just 920 square feet of interior space, but its L-shaped wraparound deck brings the total living space up to 1,300 square feet.
The students designed the house with two modules: one wet and one dry. The wet module contains all of the house's plumbing. By condensing the plumbing system, water never has to travel more than 30 feet. The exterior of the wet module is outfitted with a green roof, a green wall with cubbies for plants, and a small garden.
The dry section of the house is topped with a wing-like roof, which uses solar shingles instead of panels. The shingles can be replaced individually and also avoid the need for a racking system.
The two sections of the house will be pulled apart to travel. Designing a building for Southern California that must first be built in New Jersey was one of the challenges the team had to overcome.
"A lot of our architectural features are specific to Southern California," said my tour guide Zak Moy, a recent Stevens grad. "For example, the pitch of the roof is designed for that area. Also, on our green roof, green wall and our garden use plants that are native to California. So, we're actually working with a nursery there."
Inside, the students designed a modular system of cubbies, shelves, seating and even a Murphy bed that attaches to a rack. The team plans to install the system on the main wall of the living room and also in the spare room. The units can be detached and rearranged to suit the residents' needs. For example, the spare room could be remade into a guest room, a child's room or a home office.
The house also has a number of "smart house" features that can be accessed from a small utility room. This includes an on-demand water system that only heats water when it's needed. A series of sensors provide users with information about energy production from the solar cells and usage. This way, residents can make better choices about when to use energy-heavy appliances, such as the washing machine.
The entire competition spans two years, which means the team has experienced some flux over the course of the project as seniors graduate. As many as 55 students worked on the project at a time, representing a range of disciplines, from business to engineering. Moy himself was a visual arts and technology student who graduated in May and is helping with the project's PR and graphic design.
"This is probably our most collaborative project at Stevens," Moy said.
In 2011, Stevens worked with Parsons New School on a Solar Decathlon entry, which was donated to Habitat for Humanity after the competition. This year, they hope the house will be used by veterans. The EcoHabit team is currently working out a deal with a university in California to make the house into a veterans' resource center on campus.