Decathlon Is Run by the Sun

Posted October 10, 2007 at 4:30pm

For University of Maryland graduate student Brian Borak, 25, electronics used to be nothing more than a hobby. But on Friday, Borak, who is getting his Ph.D. in chemistry, will unveil on the National Mall an 800-square-foot, energy-efficient, solar-paneled house that he and his teammates designed for this year’s Solar Decathlon.

Borak, who is the team’s engineering leader, said that the work he has done on UMD’s LEAFhouse has helped him learn about a discipline he once considered only a hobby.

“I never even had a clue about how solar [panels] were designed before,” he said.

Starting Friday, UMD’s team and those from 20 other universities and colleges around the world will open to the public what was for many a project that took more than a year to design and build — a highly efficient house powered exclusively by the sun. The houses are on display on the National Mall and will be open to the public for viewing from Friday to Oct. 20.

The Solar Decathlon is judged by a panel of experts in 10 different subjects, including architecture, marketability and engineering. In addition to being entirely powered by the sun, the houses also must maintain a comfortable temperature, provide attractive lighting, power household appliances for cooking and cleaning, power home electronics and provide hot water, all within 800 square feet.

Borak said he thinks his team’s winning asset is the LEAFhouse’s architectural design.

“Our house is meant to be a house that you can live in,” he said, adding that it doesn’t look like a futuristic solar-paneled structure.

Robert Burt, one of the judges and a 35-year veteran of the building construction industry, said it is important for teams to build structures that resemble normal homes if they want their design to be marketable.

“I think people would like to live in a house that looks like a typical house,” Burt said.

The team from the University of Colorado at Boulder, which Borak said is UMD’s greatest competition because they were the champions in 2002 and 2005, tried to make their design more marketable by also creating plans for a 2,100-square-foot home, team leader Chad Corbin said.

The problem with the competition is that most people are not used to seeing a house that is only 800 square feet, Corbin said, which is the regulation size teams must adhere to in order to comply with the decathlon’s rules.

“They’re smaller than people are used to, so they have a hard time relating to it,” he said.

According to Corbin, his team will be rebuilding only 700 square feet of their house design. The remaining 1,400 square feet will be represented in another form for the judges but will not be structured on the Mall like the rest of the house.

Corbin said the CU-Boulder team plans to spend a total of $400,000 on this year’s design, with $280,000 being invested in the house itself.

Corbin said his team relied heavily on contributions from individual sponsors. CU-Boulder also has presold the house for $200,000, which should help cover some additional costs, he said.

According to Borak, the Solar Decathlon has cost his team about $850,000, much of which has been covered by donors such as the Tradewood Windows and Doors and Sanyo Energy Corp.; however, Boark said his team will not know if their costs are fully covered until after LEAFhouse is sold.

“A lot of it is just kind of out of pocket right now,” Borak said.

In addition to the price of building the actual house, teams also have had to cover additional expenses, including transporting the structures, which originally were constructed on the college campuses, and the living expenses of the teams since their arrival in D.C. on Oct. 3.

The Solar Decathlon takes place every two years and is sponsored primarily by the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory sponsors and manages the event as well. Together the two work with many other sponsors, including the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the American Institute of Architects.

Teams are selected to compete in the competition by DOE, and all are awarded $100,000 over two years. There is no cash reward for the actual winners of the competition.

CU-Boulder was named the champion of the decathlon during the competition’s first year in 2002, and the school won first place again in 2005. This year is the decathlon’s third competition, and it will occur again in 2009.

Corbin said he thinks CU-Boulder has been so successful in this competition in years past because the requirements for the Solar Decathlon closely mirror their education requirements, especially in the building systems program, where he will be getting his graduate degree with a focus on renewable energy.

“Its kind of tailor-made for the program we are learning,” he said.

Corbin, 30, said many of his team members were prepared for the challenges of the decathlon, having already received undergraduate degrees and spent some time in the work force before returning to college for more education.

With a little more than a week to rebuild the houses on the National Mall, teams like Corbin’s may have been prepared for the intellectual challenge, but the physical challenge is something else entirely.

“We’re not getting any sleep,” Corbin said, “We’re kind of trying to overlap with shifts.”

Borak also said his team has not had a lot of free time.

“It’s just very intense,” Borak said. “We’ve had a lot of sleepless nights when people are working 24/7.”

Along with UMD and CU-Boulder, some other teams that have entered the competition include Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Universidad de Puerto Rico and Universidad Politecnica de Madrid.

The opening ceremony for the Solar Decathlon will take place Friday at 10 a.m. The public is invited to tour the houses from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on weekdays. The winner will be announced at 2 p.m. Oct. 19, and the houses will be on display at the National Mall until Oct. 20.