Appalachian Perspective: The Solar Homestead (2011 Solar Decathlon)

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.

How do you build the most affordable efficient home that uses renewable energy systems? Appalachian State University students and faculty comprise one of twenty select teams from around the globe crafting such a home as part of the 2011 Solar Decathlon, the world's largest and most recognized green building competition.


Dr. Kenneth E. Peacock: How do you build the most affordable efficient home that uses renewable energy systems? Appalachian State University students and faculty comprise one of twenty select teams from around the globe crafting such a home as part of the 2011 Solar Decathlon, the world's largest and most recognized green building competition. Coming up on Appalachian Perspective we'll meet members of the team who hope to win first place.

KP: Welcome to Appalachian Perspective. My guests today are members of Appalachian's 2011 Solar Decathlon team—Dr. James Russell, assistant professor of Building Science and Mr. David Lee, candidate for the Master of Science degree in both Appropriate Technology and Building Science. Welcome Jamie and David, it's great to have you on the show.

Dr. Jamie Russell: It's great to be here.

KP: Start right off and tell me. How did you get Appalachian this distinctive honor? How did you get us to this particular point? How competitive was the process? What did you do, when did you learn, where to from here?

JR: It's been a long process. We started off in Fall of 2009 with a graduate class. Chad Everhardt, another faculty member in the department—he's an architect—and I formed this class of eight graduate students, of which Dave Lee is one, and we wrote the proposal. The proposal was due November 17, right after the 2009 competition wrapped up in October, and we were actually due to hear back in December. So we were so excited. We're waiting. It's the end of the class and we didn't hear anything and so we called and we emailed and we didn't hear anything, We had classes on go for the Spring, ready to go based on our proposal. In the Spring semester, about a week and a half into the semester, we heard that we were in. Congratulations, but it was just the first cut. There wasn't supposed to be a first cut. So we reassembled and of course the students already had their schedules made at this point so we reassembled another team to build—the Department of Energy requested a model and they requested a poster board—so a scale model and poster board that described our concept and fleshed out the design more. That was submitted right in the beginning of March, right before spring break we submitted it, and towards the end of the Spring semester we found out we had been, that we had been selected. I'll turn it over to Dave to talk a little bit about how competitive the process was.

Dave Lee: Yeah we were one of forty international universities that submitted a proposal originally to compete. As Jamie mentioned, our first part of our proposal was mostly just a concept. It was a lot of words describing what we were hoping to accomplish, how we're going to go about doing that, and then the second part of the proposal, round two, was more of a design and we actually turned those words into images and a house plan and really hashed out that kind of stuff. Of the forty-five teams, I think you mentioned there were twenty that were selected, we're competing with some really big names from across the world and we're pretty excited to be at this point now.

KP: The plans that you submitted, and the ones that are reviewed, is done by the Department of Energy, is that correct?

DL:That is correct. The Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory are the two government organizations that sponsor the Solar Decathlon.

KP: And to me it's very important that this is an international competition, correct?

JR: That is correct.

KP: When we say twenty, it's twenty in the world not just in the United States.

JR: Absolutely, we're competing against teams from China, from New Zealand, from Belgium, from Canada, along with a myriad of other U.S. teams, and I think the closest one of those would be Team Tidewater.

KP: OK OK. Do you know how many competed to begin with? I mean you said you made the first cut but how many really submitted something?

DL: Well there were forty-five submissions this year and this is the first year they've done a second round of cuts because the submissions were so good, apparently.

KP: In the past, who's won?

DL: The past two years, or the past two competitions actually because it's a bi-annual event, have been Team Germany so we're really looking to bring the trophy back here to the States. Before that Team Colorado won two years, two competitions prior to that.

KP: You have about a year or so before this really comes off in Washington.

JR: Only a year.

KP: Only a year, so what happens between now and then—what will you be doing?

DL: We will be doing a lot. The next semester will be focused primarily on advancing our design to 80% design development. We're hoping to get some construction documents put down and build one small section, one small component, of our house over this next Fall semester. Beginning in January we're going to start full scale construction of the house and the associated outdoor module units.

KP: Now you're trying to get funding together, correct?

DL: Right now we're looking for funding and support all across the board. We're looking for expertise, for materials that people can donate, as well as contributions for people to support the team members and so we can buy the materials necessary to carry out the project. After everything is built here in Boone, we will be taking it all back apart, transporting it up to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. in either late September or early October, and on the Mall there we will be competing over three to four weeks.

KP: Do we know when this will be on display in Washington yet, do we have that information?

DL: Unfortunately not. The National Mall can only be booked one year in advance, since it's a national park, and we won't know until late September or early October a definitive date for the competition.


JR: But it will be either starting September 15 of 2011 or October 1 of 2011. So we know it's in that range in 2011.

KP: Now at that point when it is on display, anybody can come? I mean it's a free thing to do?

DL: Absolutely. Anybody at all can come and the Solar Decathlon of 2009 attracted over 400,000 visitors. And got over 300,000 house visits. So it's a big event. They're on public display for about two or two and a half weeks, I believe, and anybody can show up on the National Mall and take tours of the houses and look at all the displays and exhibits that the Department of Energy puts out.

JR: It's really a fantastic process. When you show up you have five days to put your entire house together and get it operational. And then there are two weeks of competitions and then there is a celebration at the end and you have five days to take it down and bring it back, so you have a very compressed timeline for everything.

KP: This time it's on display, what do you have to do during that time period?

DL: There is going to be a lot going on. Besides the public exhibits, which means we're leaving our house open to the public and we're stationing students around the house to describe the features and concepts and technology incorporated in the house, we also have to shut down at certain times of the day to perform certain competitions. One of the competitions is hot water draw and the Department of Energy judges will come in a few times a day and make sure we can provide a certain amount, a certain temperature of hot water during a given period of time. They'll also judge our interior climate conditions to make sure that we can maintain relative humidity and temperature at a constant level when the public's not in there, so we'll get a little bit of time to stabilize the house systems and climate on the inside.

JR: It's a really big challenge when you think about sometimes over 10,000 visitors in one day passing through and then you have to take your house and close the doors and the windows and bring it back into control within say 30 to 40 minutes after thousands of people have just been touring your house.

KP: Now when they tour the house is the house decorated inside, is it livable?

DL: Absolutely. We want to make it look as much like a livable house as possible, because when people walk through it they should be able to relate to it and see their house and see how easy it is to incorporate these green and sustainable features that we put in it. Now certain things we'll have to move out of the way and make it a little more spacious to accommodate the crowd, so our couches and tables we'll push to the side and incorporate it in unique ways, but it will feel just like a house.

KP: Are you responsible for the decorating part and what do you do on the inside as well as what you do on the construction part?

DL: Absolutely. We are responsible for 100% of what goes out there and we're really looking forward to working with other departments within the University to provide some of the furniture and plates and chairs and everything that we're going to be having, artwork, and really show off the student work and local community efforts, too.

JR: It even goes as far as the students preparing a dinner for their teammates, their competitors. They divide the twenty teams up in to four-team blocks and our block is Team China, Team Belgium and Team New Jersey and us. So we—I say we, during these phases of the competition the faculty aren't allowed—so the students will actually prepare a meal for each of the three teams and they'll serve them a meal in the house. Menu planning, food preparation, all these things go into it. There is also a movie night in addition to that. There is a lot that goes in to the contest.

DL: We have to make sure our neighbors stay entertained and happy so they will give us a good score.

KP: Do you have to—in planning this with the food and all, do you keep a North Carolina flare to it or do you do anything you want?

JR: It's wide open. I think that the concept is "The Solar Homestead" which draws on the past historical roots of the Appalachian Mountain region and so I think we would like to keep it a traditional North Carolina meal within... we'll have to, they haven't posted rules about dietary restraints or any kind of restrictions, but we'll have to play with whatever the rules are, but I think we would like to keep a local flare.

KP: Talk about the design of the house. I'm sure they'll show the model here, but talk about the design itself, what—you could have done anything, correct?

JR: The design is a reinterpretation of the old homestead and if you look at the model you see this house with a grand porch. It has a great porch that ties two structures together. The main structure, the main living quarters, houses a kitchen and living area, two bedrooms, everything you need for a main house, but it's just over 800 square feet so it's quite compact. The great porch leads down to a flex space, a smaller space which is only 120 square feet but it's a stand-alone office and convertible to a guest quarters and it has it's own bathroom, a full bath suite and it it will be a small space but very functional. The porch itself is reminiscent of a lean-to. It also serves as this outdoor space because with our climate we can enjoy six and, if we're lucky, maybe eight months out of the year outside, so you have an outdoor kitchen incorporated in this nice outdoor living space. Even though we have a very compact site on the National Mall, the house with the outbuilding and with this grand porch harkens back to a homestead where you would have various outbuildings. It really does try to take the homesteading mind-set of using local materials, what was available, building structures as you need them and then putting it together into a whole. So it's a reinterpretation, but a very modern one, because we are situated on the National Mall.

DL: One of the core concepts, too, is flexibility for our house and our outdoor modules. While we will be displaying a certain layout that is conducive to the flow of traffic through the house and through our site everything on there could be reconfigured and changed and adjusted for your average homeowner's means. They could take one of our outdoor modules and plug it into their house and be able to provide some renewable energy to offset their energy uses. It's very flexible.

JR: And another thing I think to say,even though this is a reinterpretation of a traditional homestead, there's a lot of technical innovation inside this house. There's a lot going on. We have concentrating solar collectors for solar/thermal with a high temperature storage area where we store this in phase change material so you don't have the risk of boiling water or over-pressurizing pressure vessels. It will be very innovative, also very safe, but it's also going to have a lot of technology. As Dave mentioned, these out-building modules, the porch is made up of actually six trailers and these house either solar/thermal or solar pv, solar electric panels on top, and you can hook one of these up to a regular size pickup truck and pull it to your house and just plug it in, so you don't have to worry about having mechanical space to house an inverter and to house the disconnects and all of this stuff that goes into putting renewable energy into your house. You don't have to make penetration into your roof to mount the panels. It's all right there. So there are several marketable pieces like these out-building modules. Those are just the smaller pieces that make it up. And there's the flex space. The flex ohm outside the out-building module, we call them ohms, has this office/guest house that provides it's own hot water, own electricity, it has an outdoor kitchen built in, it has a bathroom with a composting toilet. So you could pull this up onto a piece of property and live in it. It's fully functional with rain water collection and the whole nine yards.

KP: The size of it—square footage.

DL: The Solar Decathlon rules stipulate that it has to be less than 1,000 square feet so we're pushing high—970.

JR: Right at 985.

DL: 985, including our flex space and main house.

KP: OK—do you get the advantage of seeing what the other institutions are doing, or the other countries are doing? Do you know?

JR: We know somewhat. The whole team took a trip to the National Mall and the National Building Museum back in late June of this year. It was a required meeting with the Department of Energy and they walked us through their expectations for us. All the teams were there, but we had a chance to go to the National Building Museum where everybody's model and poster board display board were up for everyone to see. So we got to sort of get a sneak peak at their concepts and their ideas and what they're doing. So we've had some, we've had a little bit of a view.

DL: Yeah a little sneak peak. That being said though, teams are allowed to change their design 100% and they are not required, from what we saw they could come up with something completely different or build our house for that matter and display it on the National Mall.

KP: Did either of you get to go to the one in 2009?

DL: We actually both did.

KP: Both did. OK.

DL: It was a fantastic event and it was a great way to really understand the scale, the magnitude of the project we were getting involved in. At the time working one the proposal in a small class I don't think we fully grasped how big of an event this was. But once we arrived on the National Mall and saw the throngs of people flocking to houses and it really sunk in to what we had done.

KP: The magnitude of it all. Where will you build this here in Boone—here we are in Boone North Carolina? So how do you do this?

JR: We have just acquired, with the support of the University actually, a fantastic high bay and office space, located at 1100 East King Street. It's right as you come into town, great spot, the offices will be where we work on advancing our schematic designs and our construction documents, and in the back high bay space we'll do all of our construction needs there. Ideally we'll be able to fit all three sections of the house in there, put it all together and be able to test it in an area that is protected from the weather and we can build protected from the weather so we're not getting snowed out—trying to trudge through.

JR: Because we will start building in January so, and if this winter is anything compared to last winter, we definitely don't want to be outside, if we have the space.

KP: Right. But the house itself, once it's finished it is built for—it would survive this region. I'm realizing the building process, that's one thing, but when it's a completed product, you'll look at it and say, I could actually have one of these built on my piece of property in Boone, North Carolina and I would survive.

JR: This will be a, basically, a high performance house, super insulated. We're looking at the walls at least R-30 insulation, ceilings and floors at least R-30 insulation. Most likely we're trying to go with double pane windows but we may have to go with triple pane windows to meet the requirements. This house will be able to take very hard winters and very hot summers, so it will be quite adaptable. We will be tuning it. We have to compete in the National Mall in October or late September, so we will be tuning it to perform for the competition, because we intend to win. So we'll be tuning it for Washington, D.C. but this house could be tuned for really any location.

KP: Well as you know we have shared this information with the governor who is very enthused about this and very supportive of this and wants to be there when it opens. Many of our other elected leaders that we have in Washington, they're all excited about this because it has a North Carolina feel to it, and that's what we want it to be is the North Carolina success story. Jamie, you had likened this to Appalachian's big moment in spotlight defeat of Michigan some years ago, so tell me about that.

JR: I would say this would be the academic equivalent of Appalachian beating Michigan. I think it's fantastic not only for the University, not only for Boone, not only for Watauga County and the region in general, it's fantastic for the entire state. The University of North Carolina Charlotte participated in the very first Solar Decathlon in 2002. Then it was not a really competitive process, they were trying to get people to come so they were chosen by the DOE and they went, but since they we haven't had a single competitor from North Carolina and this has been the most competitive selection process ever. We're thrilled to be there, we look forward to representing the entire state and our region and really showing off Appalachian and what we can do. I think we have a fantastic group of students. We'll get the whole campus involved from all areas we've talked a little bit about all the roles necessary, all the things we have to do so we really want to reach out and get students from every aspect of campus to participate. So it's going to be a great chance for us to show off what we can do and it will be an historic event.

KP: I think one of the points of pride that really makes me extremely happy is that we don't have an engineering program but many of the schools do I don't know that all do I don't know that answer. But that's a great point of pride.

JR: One aspect you'll see in a lot of the teams, you'll either have a university their architecture program takes on this project and they will show up with a fantastic looking house that may not perform that well. There have also been instances in the past where there are universities that are primarily engineering driven and their school of engineering will take on this task, and they'll have a house that performs well but is not exactly pleasing to the eye. We have in our program at Appalachian State, in the Department of Technology, a melding of engineers—I'm an engineer, several other faculty are engineers—and also architects—we have three licensed architects working on the staff—and we're all in the same department . Just within building we have interior design, we have industrial design, we have appropriate technology, we have building science which has the architects and engineers housed in it. We don't have a licensed four year architecture program or an accredited engineering school, but we have this really nice blend of both the hard science and the technical ability to pull it off, and the applied nature to get the job done. I think we're very lucky.

KP: When the judging is done, what are they looking for? Who does the judging and what are they looking for?

DL: Well they bring in industry experts related to each different contest. For the architecture they will take registered, well-known architects and bring them around to each of the houses and show them and walk them through it and they will judge qualitatively what they think is best in each of the houses. I believe the engineers work in pretty much the same way.

JR: Yeah, there is an engineering contest as well as an architectural contest. In the engineering contest they will look at your technical innovations—sort of your gee whiz factor—they'll be pushing their glasses up quite a bit, digging into the plans, the technological side to see how, do they think this is an innovative project are you pushing the envelope but that will also be, it won't be quantitative it will be qualitative assessment, they'll give their opinion. There are three other qualitative assessments as well, aside from those two. There is market appeal. Have you laid out your target market? Is it appealing to that target market? There is also a communications contest. How well do you communicate to your audience through your website, through your handouts, through your tours onsite on the National Mall? Lastly there is an affordability contest. To get full points in the affordability contest your house will be judged by a professional estimator who will look at every nut, bolt and washer and say, if this house costs $250,000 or less you get full points, and the points drop off as you get more expensive.

DL: Each contest is worth 100 points so we're really trying to max out every single one to get as many points as possible. One of our quantitative contests is the energy balance, too, to make sure that while we're creating a micro-grid with the other houses that are on the National Mall, we have to make sure we are putting on as much energy as we are using. During the night when we're running our TV's and our ovens and cooking for our neighbors, we have to make sure we're producing at least that amount of solar energy during the day which, in D.C. or even on the East Coast, can sometimes be hard.

KP: Right. The affordability piece to it, you brought up pricing a while ago—you know sometimes you look at things and you think, this would be a nice thing to do but... I can't install panels or like this, it's just not in my price range, I just can't make it happen. Are there things in the house that people that own a home that already own their house that they can learn from that to say my home could be more energy efficient if—it's kind of affordable for me to learn—do you think there is something to learn from that?

DL: Yeah, I think we have a lot of lessons for the people that are going to be touring the house and it's not just that you should go out and buy solar panels and tack them on to your house. I think that it's—that you can design very well-built, energy efficient, sustainable homes using the technologies and techniques we have available now. For people with existing homes they can learn the importance of making sure they have adequate insulation, making sure they have air sealed their house, if they're doing remodeling to make sustainable choices in the materials that they're choosing. I think we have a lot to teach to everybody who's going to be touring it.

KP: Biggest challenge you face between now and next September?

JR: The biggest challenge—I think they are coming in stages. I think initially getting accepted was the biggest challenge. We're there, so we're on the road, we're trotting. The next biggest challenge was getting space, which we did, we have the space to build it. Now I think the biggest challenge for us right now is fundraising. Even though the house itself, to win the contest—or to get the full points for the affordability contest—the house will be judged at $250,000. This is a prototype so we'll be experimenting with a lot of systems and the technological innovations inside and all of our work experimenting and putting those together and tuning those systems—all the faculty time, the student time and all of the other aspects of transportation to the National Mall and putting 25-30 students up on the National Mall for the month of October, none of that is included in the estimated cost of the house. So it's going to be quite an expensive project—expensive but worthwhile. So we need to get our fundraising going. We need to be able to afford to do all the things. We have a trip coming up to the International Builders Show in Orlando where we need to take about 12-15 participants to that. So all of these things sort of snowball and add up and it's a great chance for us to showcase the University and the state, but it will take some funds to do that and so fundraising is primary. Once we get the fundraising taken care, the next looming concern is wrapping up the design. We really have to have all of our designs dialed in and the technologies that are more experimental, they really need to be tested and proven by bench scale by the end of this semester, so the end of December we need to have everything done all of the drawings done—the design will be totally finalized and then the next challenge will be putting all this together. The challenges keep rolling on, but right now fundraising is the biggest.

KP: Once you get that money and you get the building sort of under construction, can people see it? Will it be available for people to see or—like a daily thing or are you going to do it once a week or once a month—how are you going to do it?

JR: I'll let the communications manager handle this one.

DL: The easiest way for people to see the house would be through our live webcam.


DL: We're going to have a live webcam feeding from our construction area so you can actually see how we're progressing on a day-to-day basis. We're hoping to also integrate time lapse photography so if you only have 10 seconds to see how we built it, you can fast forward through it so that would probably be the easiest way. After that our building has a great location here in Boone. We'd love for people to stop by and take a look at our models and our display board and really learn about the project and the decathlon more and see how it's progressing. We have plenty of opportunities. Our online presence is at So check us out there.

KP: It will be attached to the Appalachian website, too right—easy there.

DL: Right and it will actually be linked to the Department of Energy Solar Decathlon website too so we'll all be tied together.

KP: OK good. Each of you—engineer, where were you educated—how long have you been at Appalachian just a little bit.

JR: I grew up in South Carolina—Edisto Island, just below Charleston S.C. I went to Clemson for undergraduate mechanical engineering—so I'm a gearhead—and then I started co-oping—Clemson had a very strong co-op education program—so I started co-oping with a company in Laurinburg, N.C., my first living experience in North Carolina. I went back to graduate school at the University of South Carolina in Columbia S.C. and stuck with mechanical engineering. I did a master's of engineering and a PhD there, and really get involved in renewable energy and building at that point. For my graduate work I studied more along the lines of solar, thermal solar pv and also biomass energy, I delved into that a bit and continued that with a post doc. I was a research fellow at the University of Ulster, just north of Belfast, and so I had a really nice time there for two years working with a research group there. Fantastic group, did a lot of great research and it allowed me to get involved in European commissioned in research projects and just see a lot of what is happening in Europe, which is very nice. And then came here two years ago. So this will be my fifth semester starting off. So I'm happy to be here.

KP: A lot has happened in those four semesters you got behind you then.

JR: Yeah, yeah a lot has happened.

KP: Dave how about you—you are a masters student?

DL: That is correct. I grew up in Yorktown, Virginia and I attended the University of Virginia where I got my bachelor of arts in anthropology. I spent a couple of years traveling and hang-gliding around the United States and it was in Utah where I got involved in the green movement there and decided I wanted to come back to school and I heard all about solar technology and wind power and the great things we offer here. I started here in the Fall of '09 just doing appropriate technology, really excited about all the classes I'd been taking. It was in one of my sustainable building class where I actually got, I don't know, my first taste of green building and sustainable building techniques, so I changed my program of study and incorporated the building science degree with my appropriate technology pursued degree.

KP: Well both of you in the short time have done a lot for Appalachian. I thank you for that. I thank you for being guests today on Appalachian Perspective. We look forward to the win. We like wins around here and if it's bigger than Michigan that's better—I like that more. But thank you both for what you're doing at Appalachian and we're excited about your project and you have Appalachian's full support. Thank you.

JR / DL: Thanks for having us.

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