Sun Sport: Home Builders in 'Solar Decathlon'

For young professionals looking for a way to finance their first pad, new solar homes may be the answer to preserving the environment and affording to a place in a swanky neighborhood.

In what the U.S. Energy Department calls the "Solar Decathlon," contestants are challenged to build an affordable house that runs entirely on energy generated by the sun. It doesn't stop there; the houses must also harness enough energy to fully power an electric car and be both attractive and affordable enough for mainstream America.

Architecture, design and engineering students from around the world are competing to build these homes and students at the New York Institute of Technology are in the running. For the team's 27-year-old architecture leader, Matthew Mathosian, the group's home, OPEN House, is a financially viable option for young people like him.

"[Our home] helps students like us who are in the transitional period of moving out of college and into the real world afford a home of their own," Mathosian said. A home, he added, that's equipped with a cost- and energy-efficient mortgage that makes living on Long Island an economic possibility.

The team's model, designed for a South Shore property such as Long Island because of the area's volume of sunlight, is disability-accessible and meets all federal building codes.

The NYIT team, one of 20 entries in the Solar Decathlon and chosen from among 30 proposals from the United States and abroad, will construct its home on the school's Long Island campus in Old Westbury, N.Y., before disassembling it and transporting it to Washington, D.C., in the fall.

There, the homes will be judged in 10 categories, including engineering, architectural design and marketability. As part of the competition, six people will live in the homes for 15 hours a day for nine days — washing clothes, cooking food, watching TV and cruising the nation's capital in the electric car the home powers.

The NYIT team's model includes two main parts joined together and is designed to be customizable. Its long core includes permanent features such as a bathroom, kitchen, laundry and mechanical systems.

Attached to the core is a 40-by-12-foot open space, allowing the homeowner to freely rearrange furniture and living space. The back wall of the living space features floor-to-ceiling windows that open accordion-style and French doors that provide an unobstructed view of the backyard.

"You can be inside and feel like you're outside," said project manager and architecture student Matt Vecchione. "It will feel like an extension of nature."

The roof's 35 built-in solar panels power the house when the sun is up and charge a set of batteries for evening energy, because solar panels, or photovoltaic cells, cannot store energy.

According to Vecchione, the batteries are a temporary feature for the competition. When the home is moved to a neighborhood, it will plug into the local electric grid to draw on — and contribute — energy.

As the team conceives it, homeowners will build energy credits in the spring and early summer, as their home makes more energy than it consumes and thereby contributes the excess energy to the power grid. Then come winter, the home will have stored enough energy to sustain it through cold, cloudy months.

According to the team's calculations, the home produces enough energy annually to power a single-family dwelling. So, even though electricity bills on Long Island run high, living in a home with the capabilities of OPEN House would reduce the utility bill to virtually nothing.

And while the home produces its own energy, it's also designed to consume less. Its cross ventilation model with the French doors, for example, provides a constant, cooling breeze in the summer that reduces the need for air conditioning.

But perhaps the only thing cooler than the home's design is its price — the market cost for the prototype comes in at $220,000.

The team also hopes the home's design — modern, but not too futuristic — is something prospective buyers can visualize in the nearby future of their local neighborhood.

But it may take consumers looking to cut their utility costs some time to get used to the home's technology.

"Most homeowners are uncomfortable with becoming independent power producers," said Dan Rapka, the engineering team leader, noting the team aims to educate potential dwellers about the ease of running an energy-efficient home.

For example, the house uses smart home technology via an electronic dashboard, which shows how much energy every system, such as electricity and heating, is using. Homeowners can access this information from their computer and control such features as the air conditioning and motorized windows. That way, residents will be able to flick on their AC from their PC at work, cooling the house before they get home and saving energy by keeping the air conditioning off all day.

Currently, the home also features a rooftop pond that acts as a geothermal well — the 1,000-gallon water reserve transfers and stores natural energy in the form of heat. The home will feature a waterfall on a side wall, which constantly replaces the rooftop reserve, preventing stagnant water and releasing stored-up energy.

Though the competition requirements cap the home's size to 800-square feet, the home features a fully functional kitchen that includes oak cabinets, a crushed quartz countertop resistant to both high heat and freezing and a safe, energy-efficient cooktop. The weight of pots and pans activates the magnetic energy to heat the cooktop, which is cool to the touch as soon as the pot is removed.

After completing the home in its current Long Island location, the team will disassemble the frame, transport it to the National Mall in Washington in October and then reassemble the home within two weeks. This turnaround time, Vecchione said, makes the home ideal for use in disaster relief, particularly for floods, because the home is built off the ground.

"Right out of the box, it will run itself," Rapka said.

The competition includes a free public tour of the homes on the National Mall from Oct. 12 to 20, and after the contest, teams will list their blueprints and the products used on the contest Web site, solardecathlon.org.

"We want a person to walk by and realize this is something they can use in their homes right now," Vecchione said.