And Would You Like a Garden With That?
MIT's new Solar Decathlon Team is currently preparing for the construction of Solar 7, an 800-square-foot completely solar-powered house. The seventh solar-powered house to be built on MIT campus, this house, which will be near Technology Square, will have several unique features, including an interactive energy-monitoring system and the ability to be taken apart and shipped to any new location. It will also participate in an event that none of the other houses have ever attended: the Solar Decathlon Competition held in Washington D.C.
The Solar Decathlon Competition is an international event in which twenty universities, including those of Canada, Germany, Spain, and Puerto Rico, each build their own solar-powered houses for competition against each other on the National Mall in Washington D.C. and hosted by the Department of Energy. Judged for architectural design, marketability, and energy efficiency, these houses must be able to perform the functions of any consumer's house — including washing dishtowels and hosting dinner-parties. During the two-week competition, six students will remain in the house at all times, leading tours and performing everyday activities like cooking meals and using the Internet. Furthermore, two other students will drive around in their very own electric-powered vehicle, using energy generated solely by the house itself.
MIT's house was designed by architecture students during a specially-taught class last spring semester. Open and airy, the house has a large, light-filled living room, making a small area feel much bigger. The many windows on every side of the house help save the energy by using as much of the sun's natural light as possible during the day. Both active solar cells and passive solar heating are used in order to maximize the amount of energy captured from the sun.
As befits an MIT creation, Solar 7 also has a few technological surprises. First and foremost, it was designed to be a smart house. Although every Solar Decathlon house will have temperature sensors and energy monitors installed for the competition, Solar 7 will be the only house to have these monitors incorporated into its design. At all times, the house will be aware of its total energy use and will be able to selectively shut down certain functions in order to conserve energy. Furthermore, a computer screen will be incorporated into the kitchen countertop, thereby enabling home users to monitor energy usage and turn on or off appliances as necessary.
Although Solar 7's footprint is just 800 square feet, it will be graced with a large yard, in the form of the National Mall. The space surrounding the house will be a "Solar Sculpture Garden" — a showcase of the different useful and beautiful energy-producing technologies that are available to the public and being researched at MIT. There will be everything from a solar-powered birdbath — for those members of the public who are ready to try out their own solar projects — to energy-producing algae a new solar power being researched by MIT's biology department. Over the two weeks when Solar 7 will be open to the public, thousands of people will get a chance to see some of MIT's technologies up close.
Also, Solar 7 needs to be mobile. Like all of the Solar Decathlon houses, it will be built at its home school before being shipped to Washington D.C. MIT's Solar Decathlon Team is preparing for this challenge by designing a house that will be pre-fabricated. The pre-fabrication process means that many of the house's integral systems — the electrical wires, insulation, and plumbing — will be built into the walls before the walls themselves are "snapped" together, resulting in a house that can easily be taken apart and put back together.
Although the actual competition itself is taking place in Washington D.C., there are more than enough opportunities for people here to become involved. The Solar Decathlon Team will be presenting at several energy events. A list of current events, drawings of the house, and descriptions of the competition are posted at http://web.mit.edu/solardecathlon/.
Diana I. Husmann '08 is a member of the Solar Decathlon team.