With the Department of Energy’s biennial Solar Decathlon competition set to take place in early October, Stanford’s entrant into the event has made rapid progress towards completing a net-zero home and plans to finish construction early this month.
The Solar Decathlon offers participating teams $100,000 in seed money to design, build and operate solar-powered homes with a zero net energy footprint. The 20 collegiate teams’ houses will be judged cumulatively across ten categories – including market appeal, affordability and energy balance – in the event, which will take place from October 3-13 in Orange County.
“If a university like Stanford enters one of these competitions…the expectations are very high,” said Eduardo Miranda, Start.Home project advisor and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “We need to come in first, second, or third, but it’s very difficult to do it the first time.”
While the Stanford team has struggled with low student interest and relied heavily on graduate students, involved students have taken charge of every aspect of the project – from construction to fundraising – and found additional backing from Silicon Valley and the broader Stanford community.
“There [are] a lot of alumni who are very generous and have contacts with companies that are really interested in helping us out,” said Lauren Gokey ‘13, part of the project’s communications team. “They have the same kind of commitment to sustainability that we have.”
Team sponsors – including prominent firms like General Electric, Intel and DIRECTV – have provided funding, labor and even hardware for the project. The house’s construction, which began over spring break and has continued through the summer, reached a milestone in late July with the installation of Stion solar panels – chosen for their cost, ease of installation and efficiency — on the roof.
“One of the rules is that we cannot use…things that are being developed in research,” Miranda said. “The rule says that we can only use things that are commercially available. So there’s no doubt that we could have used something better developed at Stanford.”
In addition to featuring energy-conscious construction, the Start.Home project also aims to encourage sustainability through behavioral design features.
“We have a lot of interactive design that our product design people have been working on,” Gokey said. “In the bathroom, instead of having a traditional sink where you turn on the faucet and turn it off with your hand, we have a foot pedal. That way, people are physically interacting with their water use.”
Other behavioral design aspects include art installations and a mobile app that reflects the amount of energy the house uses, reflecting an effort to make consumers aware of their energy consumption.
“We’re not just trying to install a solar home; we’re really trying to make a statement about how homes are built,” Gokey said. “We’re hoping to instill more sustainable behavior in people so that as they move from house to house, they just learn to be more aware of their impact on the environment.”
Given the cost of solar panels has decreased in recent years while that of installing them has not, Miranda emphasized the value of building homes to an energy-efficient design rather than renovating older houses.
“If you’re putting these panels [on] during the construction, you actually spend a lot less than when you’re…adding [them] to an existing house,” Miranda said. “The overall goal of the house is of course really looking into the future of design construction and operation of ultra-energy efficient houses.”
With less than a month until the Solar Decathlon, the team plans to practice assembling and disassembling the 1000-square-foot house — with the help of the Carpenters International Trading Fund – before departing for Orange County on September 23.
“We have a couple things to finish,” Gokey said. “We have to install appliances and everything. But the house—like the framework, the drywall, all of that—is completely done. It actually is looking like a home now.”