UAB unveils first look at completely net-positive solar house headed for competition

UAB unveils its solar house structure as students begin their journey to the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition.

A team of University of Alabama at Birmingham students are building a house powered completely by solar energy in a competition against 11 other colleges from around the world. The team unveiled the beginning stages of the house in a ceremony at the construction site today.

UAB was among an elite group of collegiate teams selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2017 competition. UAB’s team is made up of students from a variety of disciplines across the university who have begun working on the house, along with students from neighboring Calhoun Community College.

The team is working toward completing the design, construction and testing stages for what they have dubbed the surviv(AL) house, before bringing it to the Solar Decathlon 2017 competition site in Denver for the October event.

solar house 1The students are working toward completing the design, construction and testing stages for the solar house. Once the house has been completed and tested on the UAB campus, it will be disassembled and transported to a competition site, where it will be reassembled in a village along with the 11 other solar houses.

“The Solar Decathlon attracted more than 60,000 visitors last year, so this is an incredible opportunity for UAB students to showcase their talent and capacity to the world in 2017,” said Bambi Ingram, UAB Sustainability program administrator.

The team’s solar-powered house must be equipped to run all of the usual appliances and accoutrements of any modern house at the same level of a comparable house on a conventional power grid, but with the only source of energy coming from what the house is able to harness itself.

The house will operate solely by its own power, and it will create additional power, making it a net-positive structure. In other words, its efficiency will allow it to produce more energy than it consumes, leaving the homeowners or users of the structure with extra energy to use in other ways.

“The U.S., and particularly Alabama, lags behind the rest of the world in the number of net-zero, and especially net-positive, energy buildings built,” said Hessam Taherian, Ph.D., assistant professor in the UAB School of Engineering, and an adviser for this project. “By searching for innovative ways of harnessing and conserving energy, UAB students will have opportunities to develop technology that will be customized to meet the particular challenges of the local environment — from seasonal heat and humidity to surprise tornadoes and thunderstorms.”

“By searching for innovative ways of harnessing and conserving energy, UAB students will have opportunities to develop technology that will be customized to meet the particular challenges of the local environment — from seasonal heat and humidity to surprise tornadoes and thunderstorms.”

—Hessam Taherian

Because the houses must be suited to the local climate, the Alabama house will be designed with tornadoes in mind. The house will include at least one room with tornado-proof walls, incorporating building panels designed by materials engineers at the UAB Materials Processing and Applications Development Center. The design will allow for the house to be efficiently reassembled surrounding that tornado-proofed room, should a natural disaster occur.

The house will also be built to beat the Alabama heat. A UAB-developed system, which helps cool the house while reducing energy costs, uses a liquid desiccant system in combination with a solar collector to take water out of the air. Through that process, the device dehumidifies the air inside the home at night and recharges the material during the day, reducing the overall load on the home’s air conditioning system.

The house will be tested in advance of the judging to ensure it produces enough energy to power all appliances. For example, students will be required to wash laundry, and clothes will be checked to make sure there is enough power for the dryer to fully dry the clothes. Other appliances will be checked to make sure they meet normal expectations, such as a water heater that can sustain hot water for the typical length of a shower. The house will also have to provide sufficient energy to charge an electric car enough so that the car can be driven 25 miles during the competition.

The team will be required to prepare meals for two dinner parties at which they will host teams from other universities. They will also host a game night using the house’s audiovisual equipment with snacks prepared in the home’s kitchen. Bonus points will be awarded for any excess power generated by the house.

solar house 2The surviv(AL) team and supporters unveiled the beginning stages of the house in a ceremony at the construction site.“We want to fight the misconception that a house using renewable energy means compromising on comfort or performance,” Taherian said.

The teams will showcase the houses to the public and provide free tours of renewable energy systems and energy-efficient technologies, products and appliances.

There, the houses will be judged according to strict criteria in 10 separate categories, ranging from architecture and engineering to the performance of the home’s appliances. The winner of the competition will be the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

The Solar Decathlon village and competition houses will be open to the public at the site located at the 61st & Peña Station on the University of Colorado A line commuter train, free of charge, on nine days over two long weekends this fall:

  • Thursday, Oct. 5-Sunday, Oct. 8: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
  • Monday, Oct. 9: 1-7 p.m.
  • Thursday, Oct. 12-Sunday, Oct. 15: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

The Solar Decathlon 2017 teams will be competing for a minimum of $100,000 and a maximum of $300,000 in prize money.

Once the competition is over, the house will be returned to UAB and will become a permanent net-positive building on campus, where it will be available for sustainability research and other uses, all while helping raise awareness and educating the public about renewable energy.

UAB’s team of approximately 60 students is being guided by faculty in the School of Engineering, in partnership with UAB Sustainability and the Collat School of Business, as a component of the project includes marketing and communications activities.

Once the competition is over, the house will be returned to UAB and will become a permanent net-positive building on campus, where it will be available for sustainability research and other uses, all while helping raise awareness and educating the public about renewable energy.

Industry partners have been equally important in the progress of the project. Williams Blackstock Architects, for instance, has offered its services in helping students, faculty and staff with the design of the house. Additional industry partners will be key to the project’s success.

Team Alabama’s Solar Decathlon effort so far has truly spanned across campuses and into the community.

The UAB Facilities Division continues to be instrumental to the project through offsetting some costs, providing materials and the construction site, as well as offering construction expertise to the team.

“This project is the perfect example of how we strive to integrate research and innovation processes to operate like a living lab,” said Mike Gebeke, assistant vice president of Facilities Management. “We are really happy to have the opportunity to partner with academic units for this exciting, innovative project that will benefit our entire community.”

“Team Alabama is already accumulating what will become hundreds of man-hours from students, faculty and staff to help complete this project,” Taherian said. “In order for it to be truly successful, significant community support will also be needed. In addition to the cost of building a completely self-sufficient house on campus, the team will be seeking funding for building materials, appliances, transportation, lodging and more.”

Donations are being accepted online on UAB’s Solar Decathlon website. To learn more about supporting this project, reach out to a member of the project’s leadership team here.

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