For nearly two years, 100 Cal Poly students from 12 majors have dedicated their time to developing a completely solar-powered house from the ground up — literally.
The project, called INhouse, has been developed for the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. More than 20 universities entered the competition, but only 14 remain.
The last time the university entered was in 2005, when the team placed third overall, as well as first place for lighting and second place for architecture in the individual competitions.
This year, they hope their multiyear project can improve on the previous ranking.
The cross-disciplinary project isn’t just about architecture; it includes students across 12 majors, involving a sponsorship team responsible for fundraising more than $600,000, and even a social media team.
“It’s everything,” said environmental management and protection senior Soroush Aboutalebi, who is the health and safety officer for the project. “It’s way more in-depth than we thought it was going to be, but we love that. That’s what we welcome.”
The project is so massive, he said, that approximately 20 students have done entire senior projects on just one aspect of the house.
In December 2013, the Renewable Energy Club started the project and applied for the competition. Once Cal Poly got its bid from the Department of Energy and a starting $50,000 grant, a team formed and began designing and fundraising.
Construction on the house began in early May, which was later than planned. The team thought it would be able to do construction itself, but due to liability concerns, they hired local contractor Maino to do the bulk of the construction.
It takes a combination of the right facilities, funds and faculty advisers to complete a project like this, Aboutalebi said. Though any number of things could go wrong, he’s confident in the team’s abilities, considering they come from some of Cal Poly’s nationally ranked programs, such as architecture and construction management.
“It’s going to be a great resume-booster for people. Not saying that we do it because of that, but it’s this kind of hands-on experience is what Cal Poly’s about — and it’s one of the reasons why we’re going to win the competition.”
For students such as construction management junior Miguel Diaz, the project has informed their future career paths. Being involved solidified Diaz’s desire to be in construction management, he said, and helped him overcome doubts that are common to students.
The cross-disciplinary nature of the project offers real-world experience for students from a variety of backgrounds. For architecture senior Justin Wang, it provided a more practical perspective to his education.
“It opens up a whole other side to architecture that’s more practical and real,” he said. “You get to see your designs actually come to life, and the processes that it takes to get there.”
The hands-on experience is different than he would’ve gotten through studios, he said. Watching realistic collaboration has given him an understanding of other aspects of construction, not just the architectural design.
At this point, the house is mostly complete and must be finished by late September, leaving time to transport the 1,000-square-foot project to Irvine, California for judging. The competition, which began in 2002 and has been held every two years since 2005, requires that teams design, engineer and construct a net-zero home, meaning the home’s energy used is offset by renewable energy sources, such as solar panels.
The team has incorporated several net-zero features into the house’s design, as outlined in a press release:
- Landscape irrigation: The roof redirects storm water directly to planters, which are designed as rain gardens. These gardens naturally filter the water through the landscaping and soil.
- Constructed wetlands system: This system cleans and recycles gray-water for landscape irrigation. The planters in the system have three layers of soil topped by native plants. As the water steps down each planter, it waters the plants on the surface and the remaining water is filtered through the gravel and sand.
- Bifacial solar panels: Making up half of the home’s photovoltaic array, these panels have photovoltaic cells on both the top and bottom of the panels. Bifacial panels collect most of their energy from the top, collecting additional energy from reflected light hitting the bottom of the panels. They tie aesthetics together with energy production.
- Phase-change material duct: A duct that contains a vegetable oil — phase-change material that changes between a freezing and melting state at approximately room temperature. During this process, it absorbs and releases energy in the form of heat. The duct opens to the outside at night and circulates cold air, which allows the material to cool. During the day, the interior’s warm air can be circulated through the duct, keeping the inside cool while reducing the need for air conditioning.
In addition, the house is designed to be a livable smart home.
The most exciting part of it all? For Diaz, Aboutalebi and Wang, it was — without hesitation — the competition itself. Visitors are welcome to see the houses from Oct. 8-11 and 15-18. Teams will compete in 10 different contests, including using appliances to cook a meal, charging and driving an electric car and more, according to the release. The winner will be announced on Oct. 17.
“I heard it’s like Disneyland out there; you’ve got like one-hour wait times,” Wang said. “It’s really neat to think that that many people are interested in sustainable design, and come out and actually want to see what we did.”