UI solar home to return to campus from Chicago

UI solar home to return to campus from Chicago

URBANA — A solar-powered house built by University of Illinois students in 2007 will return to campus Wednesday to anchor what could someday be a mini-neighborhood of environmentally friendly homes.

The university has made space for three solar houses on the Energy Biosciences Institute Research Farm on South Race Street, starting with the "Element House" built for the 2007 Solar Decathlon competition in Washington.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the biennial Solar Decathlon challenges teams of college students from around the world to design and build energy-efficient, fully solar-powered homes. UI architecture, engineering and industrial design students have built four Solar Decathlon houses, in 2007, 2009, 2011, and again this summer for an international competition in China.

The 2011 "Re_Home," designed for rapid assembly after a natural disaster, finished seventh and is already on display on South Race Street, across from the Yankee Ridge subdivision and about a half-mile north of where the Element House will be. The 2009 farmhouse-inspired "Gable Home" took second place and now sits just south of the I Hotel and Conference Center in Champaign.

The Element House placed ninth overall in 2007 and since then has been at the Chicago Center for Green Technology, about 3 miles west of the Loop. It was originally part of a green technology expo and was later repurposed into a community education center on environmentally friendly technology.

The original intent was to bring the house back to campus in 2008, but the UI project ran out of money and couldn't afford to move it, said Robert Coverdill, director of advancement and outreach for the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering. Subsequent efforts to raise money also failed, but recently the Chicago center asked the university to move the house, as it had other plans for the property, and funding was cobbled together, he said.

"It just made sense to have it down here where the students had worked on it, and it would make a good ongoing project for students interested in renewable energy," Coverdill said.

The solar house fits with the mission of Energy Biosciences Institute Research Farm, which is focused on clean and renewable energy, Coverdill said. The location is just south of the intersection of Race Street and Curtis Road.

"It ties in nicely to the green energy concept," he said. "They're delighted to have it out there."

The energy farm has set aside space for three houses in the "front yard" of the metal building there now, providing space for future Solar Decathlon houses, one of the others already in town, or a future solar project, UI officials said.

Having the house and farm together will raise the visibility of both and provide a "one-stop site to see a collection of diverse interdisciplinary research activities addressing the challenges of climate change," said Tim Mies, farm manager for the Energy Biosciences Institute.

The Element House will need some refurbishing over the next year or so, but Coverdill hopes it can be ready for a "grand reopening" in spring 2014.

The original solar arrays were removed to make the house easier to transport, and because they weren't designed for long-term use, the structural supports need to be rebuilt, he said.

Also, students in 2007 designed a novel heating and air-conditioning system, based on refrigerator coils, but "it had some weaknesses and didn't work out as well as we'd hoped," Coverdill said. It will be replaced with a new "ultra-efficient" system developed by emeritus engineering Professor Ty Newell, he said.

That will also require drywall patching and painting, and the deck, stairs and flower boxes will also be rebuilt.

The $60,000 cost for moving and renovating the house will be covered by the College of Engineering, the Chancellor's Fund, and the Energy Biosciences Institute, he said. Coverdill is hoping for further support from the Solar Decathlon student organization, as the house will provide opportunities for hands-on projects by students.

The house will also be a basis for research on real-world energy use, he said.

Mark Taylor, assistant professor of architecture, would like to see someone living in the house — perhaps short-term researchers or graduate students working at the farm — to investigate energy usage. Research has shown that once a home is "super-insulated," as Taylor put it, "just being in the house and cooking will produce enough energy to heat the house." The challenge is how to manage air-conditioning during the hotter times of the year, he said.

Taylor joined the UI faculty as the Element House was being completed, and he was a faculty adviser on the 2009 and 2011 projects, which improved on the initial designs from 2007. Having all three houses back on campus "completes the story," he said.

The 2011 house was the most affordable, at $291,000, and that's the direction Taylor would like to explore — how to make solar technology affordable for homeowners in Illinois, particularly.

"These houses are paving the way and showing that it is possible," he said. "We hope that some of the things that we are investigating make an impact on the people who build houses every day."

Taylor would also like to see UI teams invest money in building houses in Illinois rather than taking them to far-flung competitions, which "ends up being half of the expense of the project."

He's exploring a collaboration with Habitat for Humanity or other local housing groups to build "affordable, solar-ready homes" with the hope that the concept would spread in the community.