University Team Builds Sustainable House for Solar Decathlon Competition

The University of Texas and a German university are collaborating on a model home with a solar array, rainwater collection unit and a graywater system.

by Asher Price, Austin American-Statesman / September 2, 2015 0
Technische Universität Darmstadt won the 2007 Solar Decathlon competition with this house. Jeff Kubina CC by SA 2.0 via Commons

(TNS) — University of Texas students and faculty are hustling to finish a state-of-the-art house they hope will win a federal competition that prizes sustainability.

Nexushaus is the name of the house that UT students are entering into the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition.

The 850 square-foot house, built in a sleek, modular style, will be measured on everything from market appeal to affodability.

The building, which will be shipped to California on Sept. 24 for the competition, is still very much under construction, with a ribbon-cutting on Tuesday evening held amid half-finished walls.

But the Nexushaus team, which involves more than 60 students from UT and the Technische Universität München in Germany, has already come a long way.

It was one of 20 selected for the prestigious competition out of more than 150 teams that applied; and six of those 20 finalists, including Stanford and Yale, have already dropped out, say members of the UT team.

"It's a war of attrition," said Charles Upshaw, a graduate student in mechanical engineering who is a team captain of the project.

In keeping with the architectural vernacular of Central Texas, the building is designed in a "dog-trot porch" configuration, with two rectangular modules connected by a 12-foot breezeway, allowing for cross-ventilation.

Equipped with its own solar array, a rainwater collection unit, and a graywater system to direct used water from a shower and sink to a garden rather than the sewer, the building is meant to be as efficient as possible while maintaining steady, uniform indoor environmental conditions and allowing its inhabitants to make use of appliances as in most U.S. homes.

This concept house, which the team has spent two years designing and now building, costs roughly $250,000 to produce, said Michael Garrison, a UT architecture professor who is overseeing the project. Following the competition, it will be used as staff housing at the McDonald Observatory in Fort Davis.

But the long-term goal is to mass produce the house at no more than half that cost, to use, essentially, as garage apartments around Austin.

For now, the team is concentrating on finishing the concept house.

"We've been working frantically to get it all finished," said Upshaw. The month of May was essentially washed out because of heavy rains, he said.

"It gives me a greater appreciation for construction management," he said.

The Solar Decathlon is a competition held every two years that promotes the application of solar technologies in buildings. This year's competition will be in Irvine, Calif. The homes that make it to California will be open to the public free of charge, giving visitors the chance to gather ideas to use in their own homes and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money. 

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