Shining a national spotlight on Appalachian

Students set standards for zero-energy home design and prepare for a trip to the nation’s capitol

It’s a sunny springtime Friday in Boone, and the headquarters of Appalachian State University's Solar Homestead is humming with activity. Hardhat in hand, graduate student and Communications Manager David Lee heads back to the work area to check on the day's progress and set up another round of press interviews. “It’s such an honor to be chosen to compete. We really want to make the school and the community proud,” he said.

An honor indeed. Of all the institutions worldwide submitting proposals and designs for consideration in the 2011 U.S. Department of Energy-presented Solar Decathlon, just 20 were chosen for competition. Appalachian is the lone representative from North Carolina. The 2011 version of the biennial contest will take place this fall in the National Mall’s West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., where the zero-energy houses will be judged on 10 specific critera, including affordability, communications and architecture.

“As a political science and sustainable development major, I am thrilled Appalachian is involved with a government-sponsored renewable energy project,” says decathlete Caitlin Stepp, a senior from Hendersonville. “It shows a commitment to fostering innovation and promoting a cleaner future through student-led initiatives.”

According to the Department of Energy, the purpose of the Solar Decathlon is fourfold: to educate the public about opportunities for energy-efficient construction, provide students with a unique experience that will make them the future leaders in a clean-energy economy, encourage cooperation between disciplines on the teams and showcase a “whole-home,” integrated approach to new building design and construction.

These goals are echoed by Lee, who is earning a master's degree in appropriate technology while working on this project. “We hope to educate the public about the benefits, ease and importance of energy-efficient design. That awareness will hopefully influence legislation to change, removing barriers to North Carolina’s economic growth.”

Being green is nothing new at Appalachian, whose sustainable development and appropriate technology programs dating back to the 1970s are recognized as being among the nation’s oldest. “Appalachian has been a leader in efficient building techniques and renewable energy technologies for years,” states Bret Sowers, market coordinator and building science major. “We are passionate about what we do, and use that passion to drive innovation. Any alumnus of the university can tell you that Appalachian pride and spirit run deep.”

And the decades of commitment are paying off: in 2010 Appalachian was named a Sierra Club magazine “Cool School” for efforts in sustainability and environmental responsibility. In the Princeton Review’s 2011 “Guide to Green Colleges,” Appalachian scored an impressive 98 out of a possible 99 points based on environmentally related policies, practices and academic offerings.

The Solar Decathalon team is organized, goal-oriented and highly technical. They speak quickly, conversing in a language of acronyms like “PVs” and “ACSRs” (photovoltaic panels and aluminum covered steel reinforced conductors, respectively.) Yet at the heart of this ultra-modern effort beats a much simpler concept that is warm, inclusive and quite homegrown. Coined the "Solar Homestead” by the eight founding team members in 2009, the house’s design hearkens back to the cabins of early settlers of the North Carolina mountains, employing photovoltaic-outfitted sheds (reborn as OMs, or “outbuilding modules”) to power the main house, arranged to bring the focus of the space to a comfortable “great porch,” much like the traditional architecture of the region.

“Appalachia has a rich tradition of self-sufficiency and pioneering spirit,” says Architectural Project Manager Katharine Lea, a graduate student in the Department of Technology and Environmental Science. “What better place to draw inspiration from than that?”

The designs for the Solar Homestead are lovely in conceptual models and renderings, but the physical versions must be constructed in Boone, then transported to the site in D.C. It’s a challenge assigned to Travis McKenzie, project manager and graduate student in appropriate technology.

“Building a house that is mobile is a difficult task in itself,” he says with a laugh as he looks at the skeleton of the building, currently housed in a repurposed car dealership in Boone. “The house, OM’s and flex space will all be built on trailers that will serve as the foundation system for the structure itself. Each trailer has been approved by our structural engineer and will serve as the framing system that would typically make up the floor/foundation of a home. We felt that it would be easier to pull our house, OM’s and flex space into position on the trailer, level the trailer with foundation jacks and then leave the structure as-is.”

Transportation is just one more test to pass, one more milestone in the ambitious timeline of the Solar Homestead, but McKenzie is undaunted. “Maintaining the balance between organization and chaos for this project is a thrilling challenge that keeps things interesting.”

When it came time to find a space large enough to accommodate the project, the team found an unequaled ally in Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, described affectionately yet reverently by the group as their “No. 1 fan.” When Chancellor Peacock heard the team had been selected to compete, he enlisted support from property owners Dale and James Greene, who provided a suitable location to build the house. The chancellor also assisted Lee and Faculty Advisor Dr. James Russell in securing a major sponsorship from Lowe’s Home Improvement.

“The Solar Homestead is a shining example of Appalachian’s academic excellence, commitment to sustainability and entrepreneurial spirit,” states Chancellor Peacock. “Students from multiple disciplines have formed a cohesive and intellectually adventurous team whose work will continue to showcase our university as a place where the next great generation of leaders are already creating solutions that make a difference in the world.”

“The chancellor has been incredibly supportive – he rented us a facility devoted to our needs, and has provided resources to help us be successful. He compares the importance of this project to the Michigan football win for putting Boone on the map,” says Lee. “The administration recognizes the Solar Decathlon as meaning a lot– not only for highlighting the sustainable movement on campus, but also aligning with the key goals for the university as set out by the Board of Trustees.”

Further support from campus has come in the form of money from the student-led Renewable Energy Initiative (REI). As publicity and excitement about the project have grown, the surrounding community has provided financial backing as well.

“The Boone area merchants have been so supportive,” says Lea, taking a break from testing light diffusers in “Frankenstein,” the test house used by the team to work through design challenges. “We’ve had donations for everything from paint to plumbing fixtures to model-making supplies. It’s really been wonderful and overwhelming.”

Support has come from the surrounding region as well, and takes many forms. When a storm at Asheville's Biltmore Estate felled several large trees, Biltmore, which manages the country's first sustainable forestry program, milled them and provided the boards to the Solar Homestead team. Now, Appalachian's newest home will proudly showcase fine hardwood flooring from the forests of America's largest home.

The latest partner in the project is the local, member-owned utility company Blue Ridge Electric, which hopes that the students’ current research will generate ideas that could translate into cost and energy savings for its members and others.

Diversification is Appalachian’s key strategy for success in the competition. The team includes almost 60 members, ranging from undergraduates looking for real-world, field experience before graduation to architects and builders pursing master’s degrees who have signed on for the excitement and challenge of building a zero-energy home. The group is split into four categories, each bringing specialty disciplines to the table: Architecture/Design, Construction/Project Management, Engineering and Communication.

“Our team itself is diverse in its members and that provides us with multiple vantage points from which to consider problems. Versatility is a great benefit,” says Social Media Correspondent Katie Watson.

In a field that includes single projects from groups of institutions such as “Team Florida,” which is comprised of four different schools, Appalachian represents the lone entry without an engineering or architectural program.

“Oddly enough, I think our lack of engineering and architectural programs here strengthens our school's entry,” explains Stepp, who serves as media coordinator. McKenzie agrees: “The wide variety of disciplines offered by Appalachian affords our team an advantage over other universities. The diversity within the team keeps the project from being heavily weighted to one concentration.”

In the common area of the Solar Homestead building there is a dry erase board, visible to anyone entering or exiting. It says simply, “Days to Go,” accompanied by an ever-dwindling number. It’s only a few short months until the team packs up and heads to Washington with their goal of wowing the judges and, more importantly, educating a sometimes skeptical public about the bright future of renewable energy and efficient design. There are, literally and figuratively, many miles to go before they invite the world to sit a spell on the porch of the Solar Homestead, but they are already well into the journey, and all the late nights and tireless work it entails.

McKenzie puts it this way: “We want the satisfaction of helping Appalachian win this competition and showing the world what we can do up here. We're going to put Boone on the map. Again.”

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