UWM Today - May 15, 2008 mp3(12.8mb)

Tom (T):
For many people part of the great American dream is owning their own home and once that home becomes a reality, well so does the cost of maintaining it. One of the biggest expenses of course is paying for the electricity. But imagine if you never had to worry about an electric or a gas bill for your house. What if your home is powered by the energy of the sun? Well that’s exactly what our guests on this addition of UWM today are planning to do. With the help of colleagues and students Greg Thompson and Chris Cornelius will be building a solar home, and they will be showing it off to the world in a very very prominent  place. Welcome Greg Chris good to have you with us.

Greg(G) & Chris (C)
Thankyou

T:
I should mention both of you are assistant professors in the school of architecture and urban planning, so you study this sort of thing for a living and teach a lot of your students about the future of building. You’re going to  be embarking  on quite a ambuishes project becomes you are going to actuall build a home, tell us about it.

G
The competition is called the solar decathlon, it’s a competition sponsored by the US Department of Energy every couple of years. They have been running since the year 2000 and so we are in the 4th cycle of it. We are the first and only Wisconsin team to be involved in the competition. It is an international competition we have 20 teams competing in 2009, and we are at the end of semester one of about six semester to get us to there. So we are the begging of a very exicting process, but hopefully not one that results in all of us tearing our hair out.

T:
We do want to talk about what is going to happen over the next several semesters, but just to help frame this for our listeners and how big a deal this is, lets talk about the capstone of this project which is actually ending up with a constructed how, where?

G:
Correct, we have an 800 sqf home to build, and to actually build here in Milwaukee, take apart, and deliver to Washington DC and reinstalled on the national mall.  So we will be building the 800 sqf house between the Capital and the Washington monument in 2009.

T:
And so anyone who is making their travel plans, and wants to see something really cool built in Milwaukee transported half way across the country it will be there for really the world to see in the shadow of the Washington Monument and US Capitol.

T: Chris tell us about the work that goes on before you even get to Washington DC. What to do you have to do with your team, and it really is a team to make this dream come together.

C: It’s an interesting collaboration between myself and Greg and other faculty in the department of architecture, the school of engineering in both mechanical and electrical engineering. So it affords us the ability as faculty to collaborate, but especially for our students to actually kinda meet each other from across campus, and work together in that way.

T:
That is one of the really neet aspects of the this program because it really is interdisciplinary, not just architecture students. Is it tough to bring people together, especially young people, students that really never have had the contact with another discipline across campus.

G:
The difficult part is getting them to speak the same language. They are very enthusiastic about collaboration and it’s a good lesson each day for them to learn to speak their professional language and to also speak a language that other professionals can understand. Even between architecture and engineering there is quite a big difference in how we communicate about buildings and how they go together.

T: 
How about the professors by the way, I asked about the students but do the teachers have anything to learn or adapt to when your throw people together from different parts of the campus to one single project.

G:
Yes, absolutely, everyone has their own teaching agendas and research agendas. It has been nice to work with our colleagues from engineering who are also enthusiastic about the project. Fortunately given the climate in which we are designing this building, in which everyone Is concerned about energy use, and energy use in buildings our research and teaching agendas aren’t that dissimilar these days. So that has been a nice feather in our cap, that things have been working together in a way that has been somewhat harmless.

T:
Chris, as you think about solar homes our listeners might be considering the possibility that their really isn’t not much new here. They have heard about solar panels and maybe heating some hot water with a solar instrument. What is different about this competition, what sets it apart from someone who has dabbled with solar energy?

C:
Well, I think with most technology in the 21st century it has become more streamlined, more affordable, and isn’t just something on the roof of a home in the 70’s.

T: which where very ugly

C: Right, our job is to make it look beautiful and become integrated it into the architecture of the house.  For me, or at least one of my interests in affordable homes is,  not just the construction of the affordability but the cost of maintaining and the energy bills that people have, reducing those costs. The use of solar panels is an upfront cost, but if you spread it over the lifetime of the building it actually helps you quite a bit.

T:
In terms of this particular home are you given limits on the type of materials that you can use, is it like an erector set and everyone has to come up with something different using the same pieces or parts? Or do you have cart blanch and can you say skies the limit in building this experimental home of the future?

G:
It’s actually a little bit of both in that they have no limit on what we can put on the building or make the building of, as long as it meets all of our building codes. We have to make sure it’s safe and doesn’t do any harm to any of the students working on it, or the people visiting it when it’s in DC. There are some price limitations on items such as photovoltaic panels and we are not allowed to use technology that isn’t already on the shelf and in the market. So it is not necessarily and venue for new technology, but from my perspective it’s a way of looking at the designs of buildings that’s an integrated and collaborative process that uses our thinking and our brains to the maximum potential. Rather then relying solely on technology, it makes us think about how buildings go together, how they work, how the different systems works, and using those as the way to reduce the needed amount of energy, and to get the required amount of energy from the buildings roof and exterior.

T:

So what kind of instruments are you using that would allow you to get indeed create all the energy, because you’re really saying zero input from anywhere else. There is no plug of a pipe that is going to be bringing electricity of natural gas to the house. Is their one basic building block that makes this possible?

G:
That would be the photovoltaic panels, those are the big one. The other piece of it is that we are going to generate electricity on the building through the use of solar radiation on photovoltaic panels on the roof of the building or on the walls. We will also be using  that to generate hot water for showers and for cooking or washing dishes. But the biggest piece is actually finding ways to minimize demands on those systems to begin with. Which means designing a build which is appropriate for our climate here in Wisconsin. So instead of saying we want a large glass box that looks great architecturally, we know that that has implications in terms of energy use. So we want to designed things that perform well and look beautiful, which is not done often in schools. Sometimes in practice you do one or the other, so this is an opportunity for our students to do both at the same time.

T:
So, perhaps that means you are going to spend as much time thinking about insulation the building as much as you are thinking about the energy generation process.

C:
Exactly, in our climate we have such extreme of cold and heat, that the insulation we usually think of as keeping the building warm in the winter where the insulation is also keeping us cool in the summer time. One of the challenges in this competition is that the building is judged in Washington DC in that climate, in the early fall. And what we are designing is something that will be affective in this climate, which is really a larger initiative for us, and I think the competition is really an interesting part of that. The competition is really a catalyst for us as professors, students, and as a school to look at housing as a means for sustainable architecture and really bringing it to the domestic family and their living situation.

T:
It is a competition, so who are you up against?

G:
This year, this is interesting in the history of the competion. There are about 10 teams from the Midwest: UWM, Iowa State, University of Minnesota, University of Illinois at Champaign Urbana, Ohio State, Penn State, and two teams from Canada. A team from Puerto Rico, a team from Spain, and finally one team form Germany. The German team won the competition in 2007 and really set the benchmark for the other competitors.

T: A lot of Midwest schools, is that common for this competition?

G It isn’t, the first competition was nearly all schools that are located in the south part of the country, in the next two competitions it was “costal” and now in the 4th competition it has come to the Midwest. I’ve not sure if that was a conscience effort by the organizers or if ideas seem to float around the country to the Midwest.

T:
So how do you know who wins, because at the end of the day there are 20 homes that look attractive and are energy from within?
C: We get judged on a number of criteria and some of those citria deal with the appearance of it, the livability of the house, some of those metrics whether your temperature and humidity are within certain ranges. So some of it depends on which basket you put your eggs in I guess, to see who wins. So far we are happy to be part of the twenty schools that have been chosen for the competition. Some schools never get to participate in the competition, and many never get 1st place the first time they are in the competition. So we are very thankful so far.

T:
The really neat thing about this is that you get paid to do this, you get money from the government and so what’s their interest in it? Because they are giving each team
$100,000 a piece.

G: DOE has been using this program as a way of generating interests in photovoltaics in buildings, commercial buildings as well as residential buildings. They are also using this to generate interest in using a small array of photovoltaics to power a small home and that has been their biggest effort. We are fortunate because in the 1st competition where they only gave each team $10,000 we are getting $100,000 which gives us a much better baseline for the competition, although the budget is such that he have to do a lot of fundraising between now and 2009.

T:  So, there have been many competitions, have there been any previous competitors or projects that have discovered a new approach or new way of building a solar home that had not been known before if not for the contest?

G:  I’m not sure that they have discovered new thing in photovoltaics or a solar home. But that there are as many different ways to design a high performance; good looking buildings as there are teams in the competition.  In response to your comment before about solar panels on houses in the 70’s, a lot of the work that architects and engineers did in those decades to generate information and create a base on how buildings work was really fantastic. This competition has gone a long way to reincorporate the aesthetics as well as the performance of the building.

T:
What happens first, what stage are you in…do you sit down and design the house first, or do research first?

G: We are just finishing up the first semester of the design work, which has been a fun semester, but rather hectic. I’m teaching a class with 15 students, both graduates and undergraduate students. Chris and another colleague of ours are teaching classes with 20 students in them. So right there we have almost 60 students in architecture working on this project in various aspects. And so far it has been a lesson in collaborative design, how do you get 15 students of architecture to agree and design an 800 sqft house. Through a process of having the students design their own house, then working in groups, and slowly weeding out bad ideas, keeping good ideas. Then pushing ideas together we will hopefully end up with a building that represents the state of Wisconsin with materials and things and performs very well.

T:
How do the students react to this process of floating trial balloons and getting shot down in front of maybe 20-30 other people?

C:
They are very enthusiastic about it, what we are finding is that the students are demanding and building their knowledge base on sustainable architecture resources, and the faculty’s expertise. Also, the students knowing that they are the first semester to work on the project, of many to come, and are enthusiastic that their experiment will be built on in the future. Nonstop until we get to the mall, which I think is helping the students work on, and keep the mindset that they are working on something bigger. They don’t just work on something for a semester, get a grade and move on, the project keeps moving on.

T:
You mention sustainability, is that one of the driving factors for the classes that you teach?

G:
It certainly is for myself and Chris and while it is not explicitly part of the competition, the focus being using photovoltaics and generating electricity. Our agenda for fitting in with the competition is to look at what materials we are using, and where they come from, what fixtures and manufacturers are local, and appropriate for the project.  Contractors, both commercial and residential are looking into green technologies for their environmental benefits and to reinvigorate their trades that may not have been doing the best the last 25-30 years.

T:
As I hear you describe this building I get the sense that your looking at this as a home for the future, or a home that could be replicated. Are there aspects of this home that can be used on existing homes? Or learn to use ways to retrofit homes?

C: Absolutely, part of it is being able to reduce the energy cost of existing homes. Although our home is completely relying on solar energy there are ways to introduce these systems, or similar systems, to replace our current sources.  Using energy from the sun versus energy that comes from a power source miles away, into your how via a meter helps connect people, and give them a sense of things.

 

T: Are people doing that today here in Wi?

 

G:  Absolutely, it is not as prevalent as in some other parts of the country because it’s not as clear here. In Arizona of New Mexico where it is always hot and sunny it is more prevalent. Here in Wisconsin we have enough good weather to make it a conducive environment for solar panels. As the cost of solar panels decreases and the cost of energy increases it makes it easier for people to and energy companies to recommend photovoltaic panels.

 

T:
Where would I go for that, I’m thinking about replacing the roof on my house as an example. Are their companies that specialize in this, from a consumer point of view what can I get…? Or ways I can make these embedded in my roof.

G:
The answers are yes, and yes….For starters you could hire us….that would be fun. They make photovoltaics in a variety of materials and components. They actually make tile shingles that have photovoltaics in them; they look like slate, or regular shingles.

 

T:
Can the average person afford these products?

 

G:
That is the unfortunate downside of photovoltaics, they are quite expensive. But when replacing a large component of the house, in this case the roof. You can subtract the cost of the roof, and then add the price difference of the panels, which makes it more attractive and cost efficient, and it generates electricity. There are a number of energy companies here that provide funding and or resources to help people with photovoltaic installations.  But as energy prices go up, and pv prices go down the equation will become different.

 

T:
Chris, as an architect and a professor, how far away are we from making this type of technology just another part of every day house construction? 5years? 10 years?

 

C:
I think right in the five to ten year ranges it correct. But in the last five years the systems have become a lot more affordable and the market place has started to demand these systems at scales for the individual house, person.

 

T: With oil at $118-$120 a barrel it will be interesting to see what happens this next winter, because the sun can melt the 100” of snow very quickly. With the climate in DC being very different than the climate in Wisconsin are you making the house to deal with the DC climate, or designing the house to come back to Milwaukee and function in the Wisconsin climate.

G:
We are focusing primarily on making the house perform in Wisconsin. Because we do know the climate in DC in early September, October is the equivalent to our worst case august weather. So with that we know that if it performs well in the DC weather conditions it will perform well in Wisconsin in the summer time.

 

T:
Are you also looking at testing the house during the winter to make sure it can stay warm on the cold winter days?

 

G:
We are heavily investing in digital simulations to make sure that the house functions properly during the winter as well as the summer time.

T:
What happens to the house when it the competition is complete, and the DC aspect of the house is over?

G: The house does come back to Milwaukee; we have been talking to the Urban Ecology Center looking at possible locations, either in Riverside Park or their newest location on the Menomonee Valley.

T:
Well gentlemen we will have you back on as you move through this process and hopefully we will find out where that home ends up so our listeners can come and see the product of the work you and your students are doing.  That brings us to a close of this edition of UWM Today.  We thank both Greg Thomson and Chris Cornelius both assistant professors of architecture and their discussion of the Solar Decathlon contest at UWM, one of only twenty universities from around the world who will be in Washington next year.  Take care everybody see you next week at the same time. 

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