Appalachian Perspective: The Solar Homestead

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

Students from Appalachian designed and built this affordable net-zero-energy home for the U.S. Department of Energy's 2011 Solar Decathlon. Their entry performed extremely well against 19 teams from around the world.


Chancellor Ken Peacock: Third place architecture, third place entertainment, second place communications, first place hot water, plus winner of the coveted people's choice award. Students from Appalachian designed and built this affordable, net zero energy home for the US Department of Energy's 2011 Solar Decathlon. Their entry performed extremely well against 19 teams from around the world. We'll meet two innovators behind Appalachian's award winning Solar Homestead coming up on Appalachian Perspective.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guests today are Mr. Dave Lee and Dr. Jamie Russell from Appalachian's Solar Decathlon team. Welcome both of you, good to have you hear. We sat here a little over a year ago, in the planning stage talking about coming, being honored that Appalachian was even included, now you've brought home lots of trophies. A lot of things to be proud of here. I want to talk to you about the project itself and what it was like, but first a little bit about you. Dr. Jamie Russell, a little about your background.

Dr. Jamie Russell: Well, I am a South Carolina native. Don't hold that against me. I graduated from Clemson undergraduate then went to the University of South Carolina for graduate school, worked in the glass industry for about seven or eight years, and decided that I didn't want to move to Toledo, Ohio, so I went back, that's when I went back to graduate school, and then worked in Ireland for a few years as a research, as a research fellow in Ireland at the University of Ulster. That was a really nice way to spend time after grad school. And then I ended up coming back, moving to northern California, always working in renewable energy and buildings. And I worked at Humble State University for a few years, and decided that was too far away from home, and so I ended up coming back to this area. I wasn't job hunting, but I saw a friend sent a posting for Appalachian State and I've been here ever since and very happy to be here.

KP: We're glad that you're here too. Dave, what about you?

Mr. David Lee: Yeah, I grew up in Yorktown, Virginia, and did my undergraduate at the University of Virginia, as you've spent some time there as well. After that, I spent two years in Utah and kind of got into the green movement out there and realized I needed a little bit more education in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency, so I looked for schools and found the amazing program at Appalachian State, in appropriate technology and applied and I've been doing my masters in appropriate technology and building science for the past two, two and a half years now, in the Department of Technology and Environmental Design, and it has been the most wonderful, educational experience I ever could've imagined.

KP: Great. Well, last year we talked about planning and working and getting ready for it. But now you've done it, you've been there to Washington, you've brought back all these trophies here, a lot to be proud of. But talk about the process. When you got to Washington, was it what you expected, was it different?

DL: Yeah, it was quite a surreal experience. And to be honest, we were so busy going into the Decathlon and setting up for the Decathlon, we didn't have time to really let it sink in, but once we finished the house, we all got a good night sleep and woke up the next day, and really took time to look at the houses around us, and how amazing it was just that we were there and I've said it a lot of times that we were proud just to be in the decathlon, but right at that moment when we see what we've accomplished, what we've set up on the national mall, I think we all truly felt it more passionately than ever that we'd done something amazing even before the contest had begun.

KP: You designed and you, the students, Jamie under your leadership and other faculty members, you built it was well. But I understand, because I had the chance to go to Washington, that all the teams didn't build their projects, that you actually built every nail, every board, and the other teams didn't do that. Is that true?

DL: One of our, you know, ideas from the very beginning was to do as much by students as possible. And from, you know, putting in the wall insulation, putting the wall systems together, to the HVAC and the plumbing and the electrical wiring, and eve then photovoltaic systems, we wanted to do it ourselves, mostly because we wanted to see that we could do it and we wanted to have the educational experience of doing it ourselves. I think we gained a lot from that. I know different teams had different strategies, you know, whether they used contractors or whether they did it themselves, but I think us taking this really aggressive as much student work as possible approach really paid off in the end, both on an individual and team level.

JR: One thing I want to add is that in 2009, we went on a scouting trip, and as you walk through the house you would ask questions and just trying to find out how the you know, how the project went together and what is this innovative feature, and often times the students weren't, the really didn't know exactly, they may have one special area, but they would have to go ask somebody else or maybe nobody who was touring that day would know the answer, and the one thing I heard over and over again as people left our house is 'Your students are so passionate, they're so knowledgeable, when they gave us the tour, they knew everything about every aspect of the house.' I really think that shows through because the students built every piece themselves, and so of course they knew every piece by heart.

KP: And when I was there also, I heard that others were coming asking you for, how do we put this together? So you had to take the house, built here, take it apart, transport it, right, and reassemble it?

DL: Correct. We built our house and we were modular in our design so we wouldn't have to build as much on the national mall, and our house split into three different sections, and our great porch split up into seven different sections. We drove all that to the national mall and assembled it and pretty much the only assembly we didn't do was drive it up there. We had contractors drive it up. But we pushed them together, we made all the connections between the building and during our construction process we had a bunch of tools and experience we were able to loan out to some of the other teams and their set up, so there was a real sense of camaraderie, especially there in the beginning because we were all working to get set up in a very short period of time.

KP: Now it's the Solar Decathlon, but tell me about the sun you got in Washington or that you didn't get.

JR: Well it was, I think it has to be on record, they haven't posted this, the DOE hasn't said this, but it's been the wettest, it was the wettest Solar Decathlon ever. I think out of the days of competition, the eight days of competition, we had a total of really about a day and a half of full sun. And that really, if you look at the energy balance scores, that really hurt a lot of teams, us included. People were making decisions to turn off air conditioning, turn off refrigerators and freezers, just so they would have a chance that when the sun did finally come to pull out of the hole. It was, it was, it really did dampen the spirits, but the sun did come out for the last day and a half of the competition and it was, it really provided a nice finish, so it was a very wet, if we had had micro-hydro turbines in our gutters, we probably would have made more power.

DL: And I think it's important to point out that we did a lot of work educating the public, too, because people kind of thought that I was cloudy, and so our house was shut down because of that. But it was really just the guidelines of the competition, you know our house was net metered, we pulled off the grid when we needed electricity just like you do at your home, and then we produced electricity that went back into the grid, so we had to, we had to take a different approach if you would if this house was set up to live in. You wouldn't have never shut down your refrigerator, your heating and cooling just because you had a cloudy day.

JR: and to the credit of the systems the students built, even with that little bit of sun, and you would never have this ratio over the course of a whole year, normally the house has to perform over a whole year and this was just under two weeks. But to the credit of the house, it did pull, it pulled itself out of the hole almost a half of the energy used, several house, several of our competitors who had larger arrays, who turned off systems a little bit sooner than we did, four of them actually broke even or made extra power, so it really was a testament to the power of PV.

KP: Several people have been out, it's back in Boone. You have it back, reassembled it rather quickly, hoping for prestigious guests to be coming through, and some did come through, and got to see it. And one person, I saw our architect last night on an event on campus, and he said 'I'm going out, I've been told I've got to go out and see it because I'm designing a house and they want to incorporate some of the things that are in this solar decathlon home that's there.' What's in there that just a person can put in their own home? What could I learn from the house for myself?

DL: We included a lot of technologies that people can incorporate into existing, you know, homes and to new construction. And, you know, especially in economic times like right now when there's not that much new construction on, making sure that we appeal to people who are, who want to be more efficient, who want to have renewable energy, was something that we've done since the beginning. O we use very efficient appliances that are easy to plug into existing homes form our energy star refrigerator and cooktop and dishwasher, to our mini-split heating and cooling system. That is very easy. And then additionally, we have these OHM, these outbuilding modules, which are really a big hit, and they made up our great porch. And these are built on eight by 16 foot trailers and it has the photovoltaic canopy that produces electricity, and it has a closet for storing all kinds of stuff, you know your gardening equipment or your tools, and its built on a trailer that you can add on to any existing home, and you can plug that right into the electrical box of your house. I think that's an easy way that people could incorporate renewable energy to existing structures.

JR: One of the really nice features of these OHMs, these outbuilding module trailers, they have a flat, they do have a flat roof so they can line up so you can start off small and get as many as you want. It makes a fantastic outdoor living space as they come together. The panels, they're bi-facial, so they, you see light coming through, they have this really nice dapple light effect, and you get, you get light bouncing off the deck and getting more energy from the back of the panel as well, up to 30 percent more energy. But it, all of the equipment that runs the panels, the inverters and all of this associated equipment is built into the trailer, and so you don't have to worry about taking up space in your house, if you have a closet that's already crowded, you don't have to worry about where's all this equipment that converts energy from DC to AC, where do I put it? It's all built in so all you have to have is an extra breaker in your panel board, and run a wire and you're done.

DL: Yeah, and it's fully self-contained. I think that that really appealed to the people who came through and toured the house, and they saw how they could apply that to their own lives, and I think a lot of other houses didn't have that, so I think that was one of our strong points.

JR: There are some other really innovative systems that could be applied to an existing building as well, such as our TROM(?) wall, our phase change material TROM wall, which really, it looks like a vertical blind system, like a large vertical blind system, so it provides privacy, it still provides daylight but in the shoulder(?) seasons, you can absorb the nice sunny afternoon sun and release that into the house at night in a very controlled fashion. And also our solar thermal storage, um, it's a latent energy storage device again that has phase change materials. You end up, you end up with a box that has about 50 gallons of phase change material in it, but it's the equivalent of a 150 gallon hot water, hot water tank, so much more compact than your traditional hot water heater and very efficient, very effective, you saw were number one on hot water, which is fantastic.

KP: Talk about these awards a little bit. Number one in the hot water, the communications award.

DL: Yeah, well the communications contest looked at a lot of different facets of the competition. They looked at our website, they looked at our signage, they looked at how well we did our tours with the judges and with the public. Um, and it really kind of took a holistic approach to how we were educating people about the technologies that we employed and why we employed them. We came in second place and I'm quite proud of how well we did that, and we got amazing feedback and comments from both the jurors, from the organizers, and from the public on how great our tours were, which is really, you know, the mission of the decathlon is to get the word out there and make it easy for people to understand. We actually got third place in architecture, which is a fantastic accolade, and even more fantastic when you think that most of the schools we were competing with were architecture schools, so with no official architecture program here at Appalachian, that's pretty, extremely impressive.

KP: And under communications, is that where the hats came, because they were a hit. You are part of the solution?

DL: Yeah, I'm sure a lot of our viewers have probably seen these reflective hats.

JR: We forgot to bring some; we should really have some to show off right now.

DL: but these reflective hats were a great idea, because it allows people to get involved with renewable energy. As Jamie mentioned, the bi-facial canopy collects lights from the top and from below, so when guests were touring the solar homestead they wore these reflective hats. They were reflecting light up to the canopy or helping us produce more electricity. And then the hats would unfold into these 18 by 24 brochures that talked about all the technology in the house, and all the reasons to be energy efficient, use renewable energy. I believe that Jamie and his team actually have credit for the concept of the reflective hat, as they were trying to work the systems and get a little bit more power production.

JR: We actually mentioned it as a joke. Um, and then some people took that, you know it said in jest, and some of the designers took that and ran with it and made a fantastic, it was the best takeaway out there. As we walked around DC on our way to and from the hotel, and to other events, you would see hats popping up in eastern market, around the capitol building, the hats were everywhere across DC. IT was fantastic. I think it was the best takeaway, hands down, in any solar decathlon ever.

DL: Agreed. As far as impact, as far as people being excited to have them and to learn more about why we had reflective hats, huge impact.

KP: When I got out of the cab or off the bus on two different days, I saw them everywhere and these were children to adults, and they all just, that just caught their attention, it was something to be proud of. So that was really your idea?

JR: It was. It was said in jest. I said 'Well, if we want to have more sun why don't we have reflective hats?' It was taken by a few of the designers, Chad Everhart, Chelsea Royal and some of the others, they really ran with the idea. I actually got a text message several weeks later from Chad saying here's an image, a sketch of some of the hats and what we might use, what we might say about them, and I was like you're kidding right? He's like no. So, but it turned out to be fantastic.

DL: There were a lot of skeptical people on the team, including myself. But it took the collaboration between all the teams, between engineering, design, communications, before we came up with a product that we were actually really proud of and thought would be very powerful and silly and fun.

KP: Well all the awards that are up here, all are very special, but the one, The People's Choice Award. Tell us about that, how did you win that?

DL: Yeah, the People's Choice Award is really the way we thought of it was as the eleventh contest. All the points in the decathlon revolved around the 10 different contests, but we saw the people's choice award as really a top prize to achieve, because it means, if you win the people's choice, it means you've accomplished what you set out to do. And what we set out to do build a home that didn't require a sacrifice, that the public could walk through and say I can live here, this is comfortable, I can be energy efficient, I can use renewable energy, and the people's choice award is an affirmation that we ran a great campaign, partnered with the state and the university to get the word out there about how important this was, and we also, you know, we had people there on the national mall who voted on the iPads and iPhones, and really showed their support for what they thought was their favorite house.

JR: There were ambassadors and other students around campus, they were at blood drives as people waited in line, they were signing, having people sign up. And it's pretty incredible to think there were whole countries being represented at the event. There was New Zealand, there was china, there was Belgium, there was Canada. And we actually beat all of those countries. We beat them in voting, which is pretty amazing, when you consider China has almost half of the world's population. It's pretty fantastic.

DL: yeah, it is. And I think that one of the ways we did that too was through a lot of community involvement. You know, there's been a lot of local sponsors who stepped up to help us out, to make this project possible. We included a lot of people in our hat folding campaign, so a lot of people came out and really became a part of the team and became invested in what we were trying to do. So I think that paid off a lot for us as well.

KP: The Appalachian community really stepped up to make all this happen, but it is to be extremely proud of, with China and even the team in Florida, there were like three universities that went together and so in North Carolina there's only one school that was selected to participate, we were by our elf. So you have the community of three universities in Florida and the Appalachian State friends, family all pulled together and outvoted china, Florida, New Zealand, everybody.

DL: New York, I mean a lot of big competitors.

JR: You look at the total over 93,000 votes cast, and you think of little Watauga County, and it's amazing what little Watauga County can do.

KP: And we pulled it off. It's something to be proud of. What's next? You've been to Washington, you've done the Washington scene, and you get back and you have to get reacquainted with family, because you all have dedicated so much of your life, it hadn't just been a job, it's so much of your life that you've put into your project. You can check that off, we've done that the house is back here, it's been reassembled. And next week, of course, the governor of North Carolina is coing to the high country to see that house, and that's a big point of pride. But what's next for the house or what's next for you, the creative, innovative-type people you are?

JR: Well the house itself, I believe we have hopes it will go to Raleigh in the spring. There are a few things being talked about, both with the natural science museum and also with the Americans' suit of architect's branch in Raleigh, so hopefully there's a place for it on the mall in Raleigh by the capitol building. We'll see, we'll wait for our winter to pass. The house is set up and all the systems are working, and so it's there, ticking away, producing power and keeping itself warm, so it's there for us to show off to people here through the winter. But hopefully in the spring we'll move it out to Raleigh and it can stay there for the summer. And then we'd like to have it back for further research projects, and keep testing some of the novel systems. As far as future plans and future goals, we do have our eyes on Solar Decathlon Euro. So that's a little bit much to jump right into the next US decathlon, the proposal's due in about a week, and that would be solar decathlon 2013. The venue for that is unknown for the next US solar decathlon; they're putting that up for grabs. It's not going to be the mall because as we mentioned in the last show, there were issues within the national mall, and a lot of xxx, it won't be on the national mall, it probably will not be in DC next time. We have our eye to take a little bit of a break, looking at Solar Decathlon Europe 2014. The proposal's due in April and it's, we would go compete on an even larger world stage, assuming we're successful in the proposal writing, and take a new house overseas and compete in Spain.

DL: Quite a big and different task in a lot of ways. You know, thinking about taking a house 500 miles off the mountain is one thing, but across an ocean is definitely another task, so we'll be looking into that. I want to expand on one thing Jamie said too; we want the house to be educational. We built it, we created all the signage for it, and we want to share with the public as much as possible, and we want our students, our graduate students, to have access to it, to test all the systems that are in it. It wasn't just built for the competition; it has a long and useful life after that.

KP: Other institutions that compete, when they get their house back, whether is to Florida or anywhere else it's been: what do they do? How do they use their homes then?

DL: Teams have used their houses in a variety of different ways after the decathlon. There were two teams this year that actually donated their houses to Habitat for Humanity right around the DC area, which is extremely admirable. There is one team that has established a solar village. They've taken all their solar decathlon houses and spread them out, and they allow students to apply and go live there and experience living in a solar powered house.

JR: Several teams have sold their houses after the fact to help fund this; it's quite an expensive project, it's a large undertaking. New Zealand had a buyer for their house, the house was guaranteed even before the competition so it's being shipped back and will be owned by a person in New Zealand. Cornell sold their house in the past, so there are lots of different avenues. A lot of times, they do come back to campus as a point of pride, to stay there and be lived in by students or visiting faculty. I don't know where our house will end up in the long term, but it would be nice to have it on campus.

KP: I certainly want to take a moment and express my appreciation for the sponsors that funded this, because Appalachian like every other institution in America of higher education, this is not the time to take on projects that require funding like this. So we just had to take a step of faith and say we're going to make this work somehow, and private donations made it happen. Lowes was very supportive, they were our lead sponsor in providing funding as well as supplies, and we couldn't have done it without support like that. Many other foundations, organizations and individuals have stepped up to make it possible.

DL: Absolutely. Without our sponsors, it couldn't have happened. You know, we had a of great ideas, we had a lot of novel ideas, we had all the enthusiasm and commitment in the world, but without that financial and material support that we got from the sponsors across the state and our local sponsors too, a lot of people stepped up to help us out. It wouldn't have been possible. Additionally, you know, there was a lot of faculty and staff and administration that made dinner for us, kept up fed, kept us energized to keep working on the decathlon, and many of us got taken into faculty's' homes, so I've actually been staying with Cindy Wallace for the past month and a half or so, so it's been a huge help and allowed people who've graduated to not have to sign leases for the next year and have a warm bed to go to at two in the morning.

JR: There was such a huge array of people who donated time and effort. Dave mentioned the hat folding, the whole community came together for that. The people's choice award voting, and when you look at everything we did, we had several times when our site needed to clean up before an important visitor, and facilities, the entire facilities crew came outa nd helped us out. It was such a broad base and local sponsors, everyone from 3M, you know, companies as large as 3M as far spread as Minnesota, down to our local Mountain Lumber folks, have really stepped up and helped us out. It's been, it was really fantastic and we couldn't have done it without our sponsors.

DL: Absolutely.

KP: You know, you all referred to it, Dave I think you're the one, and Washington not as just being a university project, not a community, but there was a family formed; there was a feeling to that. Talk to me about that , what do you mean?

DL: Yeah, well, um, when you've been working with people for two years on a project, and you've not slept for countless nights, countless all-nighters, and sometimes not showered too, and you've shared this collective vision, you've shared this goal, you've all stepped up to make it happen. I think when we got to the national mall, we definitely were a family and everybody watches out for each other. Somebody's frustrated one day, you know, you try to help them out and they try to help you out too. I think in many ways we were a family and I think that even larger than that, seeing everybody come up to Washington DC from Boone and show their support and when we got announced on that opening ceremony, and we had the loudest, most boisterous group of people cheering for Appalachian State, I mean, that really showed how big our family was and how close we were.

KP: What about for future students? Jamie, what do you think with future students coming? Will they benefit form the project that has been done? Will they benefit from what you've planned for the future?

JR: I would say that definitely the, just by the virtue of getting us out there, Appalachian State, and seeing us shoulder to shoulder with universities like the University of Florida, University of Maryland, Illinois, the Ohio State University, those, it's some huge universities, universities that dwarf us and are listed at the top of the R-1s. Really, to rub shoulders with those guys and compete head to head and show that we can compete with them is going to have a huge impact on the name, the cache of Appalachian State University and so for current students and for people who are graduating right now, it's definitely something to say, to point out and say look, look what we did. It's going to give a huge amount of name recognition for the university.

DL: I think another benefit that students will have now and in the future is really developing these relationships that we've created with our sponsors and with a bunch of different companies that have been interested in the project. We'll be testing new materials and new products for them, and students will have internships there, so I think there are a lot of benefits that will be coming down the road for the long term.

JR: I know the decathletes on the mall walked away with stacks of business cards from people from potential employers, and that was great for them, but those will be ongoing relationships especially after our students get hired with those companies, and that will come back and bring, continue to bring us and our students benefits in the future.

KP: So the potential employers, Dave, what's next?

DL: I just accepted a job with Lowes, actually, as of today, I mailed off my contract, so I'll be working on their renewable energy section, and trying to really get the best and latest and most energy efficient products to the shelves for consumers. I'm really taking the mission of the solar homestead and magnifying it. You know, I'm trying to tell people the best way to become energy efficient and incorporate renewable energy.

KP: So, um, Appalachian will have the legacy of having participated in this for the first time ever. You all lead it, you brought back lots of trophies, and we thank you very much for that. It's a huge success for Appalachian, a great point of pride and it always will be.. We thank you very much for your leadership, for the camaraderie that, Jamie, you built up with the other faculty members and the students that were involved in this. Dave, thanks for your great participation in this and letting us pick on you throughout the project. You all did a magnificent job, and I can't imagine anybody doing a better job than what you did. You spoke so well for Appalachian State, a great face for us, thank you very much and for being on Appalachian Perspective.

DL: Thank you for all of your support. It meant a lot to us and I look forward to seeing all the benefits that come long term.

KP: I do too, I look forward to it. Thank you.

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