Solar Decathlon House Is a Classroom

On the campus of Georgia Tech in Atlanta, about 130 present and past students have put up, from scratch, an experimental facility called the Solar Decathlon house. It's a "learning laboratory" with "souped-up" technology, said Russell Gentry, a Georgia Tech professor who oversaw construction.

The students turned to their drawing boards and rolled up their sleeves while the Green Habitats Foundation, a non-profit organization, led by John Lie-Nielsen, committed resources to the project.

Green Habitats will over stewardship and possession of the house in August so it can serve as a data-rich repository for education and research about solar power and other forms of sustainable energy.

Solar Decathlon house is a 800-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath, shoebox-shaped, steel-framed structure that sits on display, for public viewing, on Tech's campus in downtown Atlanta. It's still a work-in-progress designed, built, and operated by students in Tech's colleges of architecture, engineering, sciences and management. It is powered by 27 photovoltaic panels on the rooftop and 12 more on the translucent and south-facing walls. The solar energy provides 3,600 watts of power. The rooftop panels can be tilted to take best advantage of the most extreme angles of sunlight, in winter and summer.

The house is transportable. It was partly disassembled and then reassembled by its student designer-builders who accompanied its journey by flatbed trailer last October to the National Mall at Washington, D.C. There, Georgia Tech earned sixth place in the Solar Decathlon international competition among their peers from 19 other universities.

"If we can achieve knowledge at the design stage," Lie-Nielson explained, "and if the students of our architecture and engineering schools are taught to think and design in terms of sustainable construction and systems, the builders will build the way it's been designed."

Gentry calculates that the house, with all its technology and computer-driven accessories, costs about $280,000. He concedes that, for now, solar energy's costs outstrip its paybacks, but adds that public demonstrations such as the Solar Decathlon house can help bring costs down, simply by creating more of a market for solar. "The cost of solar is dropping," Gentry stated. "And we know what's going to happen to the cost of electricity produced by fossil fuels. So there will be a crossing point, sometime within the next 15 to 20 years, when solar power is economically viable. We're heading that way now."

Lie-Nielsen estimates green-building now adds "only 3 to 5 percent" to overall costs of conventional construction, but not for too much longer. "Green construction yields big dividends in water and energy savings, so the payback is really very quick," he said.

"And as energy efficient appliances and insulation techniques are utilized more and more in volume, the cost comes down."

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