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Students build solar home that's no gimmick

The collegiate team behind New England's entry in this year's Solar Decathlon aims to construct something that average home buyers could afford.

MEDFORD, Mass.--To build a home powered entirely by the sun, students here drew inspiration from Boston neighborhoods rather than the futuristic lifestyle of "The Jetsons."

College students from Tufts University and the Boston Architectural College on Thursday cut the ribbon for the opening of the Curio House, a building that will run entirely on solar energy. It's the New England region's entry into the Solar Decathlon, a U.S. Department of Energy-run event where 20 teams compete for the best solar-home designs.

Student teams, who have spent up to two years preparing, will disassemble their buildings and put them back together on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in less than three weeks. The homes, which will be open to the public, will compete over 10 days on design, market viability, and other technical aspects.

The winners of the 2007 competition were Germany's Technische Universitat Darmstadt, which produced a home said to cost more than $1 million to make. By contrast, the Boston team's budget has been about $200,000. Its goal is to produce a home that could be sold for about that much as well, although it would likely have fewer solar panels at that price.

To keep costs down, the building uses almost entirely off-the-shelf products available in building-supply stores. The construction techniques, too, are meant to be relatively straight-forward, using a modular and simple design, students said.

"We want to show people on the National Mall that they can do this now, not get excited about something that they can have in five or 10 years," said Matt Thoms, the project director for engineering and photovoltaics at the Curio House and a Tufts student. Other students said they wanted to avoid "gimmicks" that would be built only for the competition.

While most of the building materials can be bought at a Home Depot, the solar panels powering the house are top of the line. There are 28 SunPower photovoltaic panels able to produce 6.4 kilowatts of electricity and five solar thermal panels which will provide hot water and heating.

That's far more than a house this size--800 square feet--would need if it were connected to the grid. But competitors need to operate for 10 days while at the Mall, performing a number of jobs, such as doing 10 loads of laundry and hosting a "movie night" where they show off their in-home entertainment system. Batteries will store energy in case it's cloudy or for night-time use.

Teams will also be judged on how much excess electricity they generate. The overall energy load of the Boston house will probably be about a third of a typical home the same size, as it will be well-insulated (lowering the heating and cooling system load) and it will use energy-efficient appliances and LED (light-emitting diode) lighting.

Community living
The building design was done with an eye toward densely populated communities, rather than only for people who can afford to buy land to live "off the grid," students said. The back porch and front deck both have privacy screens, a feature that would allow for many similar buildings to be placed closely together.

The one-story home itself is small at 800 square feet, meant for a couple or a couple with a young child. Residents will also need to "manage" the home's climate to a certain degree as well: south-facing outdoor blinds need to be adjusted to let in sunlight for lighting and heating. The outdoor blinds, along with a planned pull-down bed, are meant to maximize the indoor living space.

But the home will have high-tech touches and modern conveniences. It's wired with Ethernet and will have a simple energy-monitoring display for the residents using technology developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to students.

The competition starts on October 9 in Washington, D.C., when students will start assembling their buildings to prepare for the judges, the media, and public viewings. Although it's not part of the requirements, the Boston team thought about the energy that's needed to put the Curio House together. Instead of hiring a heavy-duty and very polluting crane, the entire house can be assembled with people and forklifts.

In focusing on affordability, the Boston team has already tackled one of the trickier problems of green building adoption. The Curio House may even see people living in it someday: the team has lined up a buyer for the home at a "green community" housing development planned in Cape Cod.

For more technical details on the house, see this photo gallery.