Building a completely solar-powered house is no small task. But a team from the University of Alabama at Birmingham stepped up to the challenge. They’ll compete against a dozen other schools from the U.S. and Europe to see which team has built the best solar-powered home. It’s called the Solar Decathlon and it takes place in Colorado in October.
The UAB team has waited months to see SURVIV(AL) House loaded onto trucks and shipped nearly 1,100 miles to Denver for competition. The roughly 1000-square-foot home was built to come apart in sections.
“We’re wrapping it and fixing to put it on the truck,” says Lynn Smith, a UAB alum and one of the lead construction managers. “We wrapped the plastic all the way under so when it sits on the truck the air can come under, but it doesn’t get moisture or rain if they go through rain between here and there.”
At competition, students will be judged on things like architecture, market potential and innovation. They must demonstrate the everyday use of household appliances using only the solar energy created on site. Among other things, they’ll have to wash and dry a load of towels and boil a five-pound pot of water until it completely evaporates. All of this is timed and must be done while running other standard appliances.
The UAB team has poured blood, sweat and even a few tears into this project. Students in engineering, math, business, even theater arts have worked alongside UAB staff and volunteers to build the solar house. At the unveiling in July, mechanical engineering student Gabriel Okafor said the project has taught him skills he never thought he’d need.
“In as much as we are mechanical engineering [students], they have us reading architectural diagrams,” he said. “It’s a very widespread, broad–ranging things that we get to learn and we get to do.”
The house will eventually be used as a tool to teach future generations about renewable energy. After competition, it’ll be transported back to Birmingham, reassembled, and serve as an anchor for the planned green space on the south side of campus. And students will actually live in it.
“But it won’t just be like a private house,” says Julie Price, UAB’s sustainability manager. “Students that live there will have to give, you know, maybe a tour a week to K-12 children and visiting industry people. So if engineering faculty want to write a grant to test some new battery technology or something like that, we’ll have that infrastructure in place.”
Community members see the solar house as a benchmark for expanding sustainability projects beyond the UAB campus.
“These are the types of projects that can start to go beyond just our city center but start to impact all the other communities around,” says Carlee Sanford, executive director of the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve.
Hessam Teharian, who teaches engineering at UAB and is the lead engineer on the project, says competition rules require every home be built to withstand severe weather.
“When we bring the house back to Birmingham, this is going to be anchored to the ground according to FEMA regulations,” he said. “So, if a tornado hits the house, everything goes. These panels are tested at high wind speeds above FEMA regulations.”
UAB engineers designed the panels, Teharian says. Most of the materials that went into the house were donated, as was the extensive manpower. Officials estimate the total cost of the project from construction to travel is around $290,000. First prize in the Solar Decathlon is $300,000. But everyone involved agrees that the experience has been its own reward.