Solar Decathlon House will Benefit U.S. Veteran

Students from GW collaborate with peers from Catholic and American universities on house design and construction.
Solar House
March 01, 2013

by Laura Donnelly-Smith

The students from Team Capitol DC—a group representing the George Washington University, Catholic University of America and American University—have a particular client in mind for their efficient, solar-powered recycled-steel house. The structure, which the team will enter in this fall’s Solar Decathlon in Irvine, Calif., will eventually become home to a U.S. veteran from the war in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This year marks the first that a university from the District of Columbia has been awarded a spot in the decathlon, an international competition held every two years and sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. Twenty teams were selected from around the world. Team Capitol DC includes students from GW’s civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, interior design and landscape design departments.

The solar home, which the team has named Harvest Home, is designed to “harvest” as much energy as it uses, said Danielle Barsky, a GW graduate student in mechanical engineering and the team’s student leader for the house’s mechanical systems.  The home will be connected to the electric grid so that its systems can be powered at night or during bad weather, but its energy use will ultimately be net zero, which means its energy production will offset its energy usage.

Harvest Home’s design blurs the edges between indoors and outdoors and provides a calming atmosphere in which a returned military veteran can focus on his or her own healing process. Every part of the home has been designed to be Americans with Disabilities Act compliant, in case the home’s eventual resident has injuries that affect mobility.

In addition to its recycled steel frame, the home uses salvaged wood and other construction materials “harvested” from buildings that have reached the end of their useful lives.

The team also looked for innovative ways to make the energy-efficient house work. The decathlon competition includes 10 different contests, covering everything from the homes’ HVAC systems to their landscaping. High marks in the largest number of categories will determine the winning house.

“We really wanted to design something that hadn’t been done before—so that it’s not just efficient, but configured in a new way,” Ms. Barsky said. While she has been focusing on designing the home’s mechanical and plumbing systems, other students have concentrated on the home’s structural soundness, landscape design, interior design and more.

GW student Lauren Wingo is interviewed by a local reporter at the kickoff of the Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013 competion on Wednesday. Wingo is a member of GW's structural engineering team and Team Capitol DC. Photo courtesy Latarsha Gatlin

Graduate student Lauren Wingo, the structural engineering team lead, said the students have worked with the D.C. office of structural engineering firm Arup to ensure that the building will be safe and up to code. Collaborating with professionals has been extremely beneficial to her growth as an engineer, Ms. Wingo said.

“As a student, in a lot of engineering classes, you do a small-scale problem. This is building an actual house,” she said. “This is the perfect project for me—it’s a taste of what’s to come in the professional world. It’s been really useful.”

Like everything else in the house, the landscaping has been designed to be both ecologically sound and aesthetically pleasing. Customized for the “coastal scrub” environment of Southern California, Harvest Home’s landscape will include only one tree, but several areas for native and edible plants. Inside the house, natural colors of sage and heather are continued from the exterior landscape, and the kitchen table will feature a well from which herbs like chives and parsley can grow directly.

Another “value added” innovation to Harvest Home is a set of biosensors, said W.M. Kim Roddis, a professor of civil engineering and faculty adviser for GW’s team. These would monitor an occupant’s well-being in a nonintrusive way and could alert the occupant that he or she might want to seek medical help.

“The students are designing a noninvasive sleep monitoring system,” Dr. Roddis explained. “It tracks how restless someone is without videotaping them. The system could be used to look for changes in pattern. If someone is suffering from depression or post-traumatic stress, for example, this system would flag deviations from the baseline.”

While most of the initial planning for the home and its systems has been completed, the majority of construction work will be done this summer, Dr. Roddis said. Students will do most of the work in a Catholic University parking lot. In early fall, the house will be loaded onto a trailer and transported to Irvine, where students will then reconnect and test all the mechanical and electrical systems and install the landscaping.

The team is seeking additional construction help from anyone in the GW community who is interested, Dr. Roddis said. Although the planning and engineering have been completed by students in specific academic areas, there is much more work to be done to make Harvest Home complete, and anyone with an interest in sustainable building is welcome.

Meghan Chapple-Brown, director of GW's Office of Sustainabilty, said the students' work is very high quality.

"GW is incredibly proud of our faculty and students on Team Capitol DC. The Solar Decathlon is a world-renowned competition with judges from some of the most reputable renewable energy institutions," she said. "GW students and faculty, along with their partners at Catholic and American, have built a home that has made it to the top tier of the competition globally. We are rooting for the GW team to take Harvest Home to the finish line in California."

Dr. Roddis said watching and facilitating collaboration between students from GW and the partner organizations has been richly rewarding for her as a faculty member.

“The students end up doing things they never would have believed they could do,” she said. “This is so much beyond a class.”

Students interested in helping with the Solar Decathlon project should send an email to sustaingw@gwu.edu.

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