Beyond smart homes | May 31, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - May 31, 2013

Beyond smart homes

Stanford students build an interactive, customizable solar home

by Audra Sorman

Wearing a hard hat and safety goggles, Stanford University student Derek Ouyang stood in the middle of a partially constructed solar house, which shaded a group of working students from the heat of a sunny May afternoon. A senior studying civil engineering and architectural design, Ouyang looked back-and-forth between the digital blueprint on his laptop screen and the home-to-be around him.

"I'm very interested in making it easier for people to understand how energy works and to make better decisions," he said.

In a bid to bring this understanding to life, Project Leader Ouyang and the first-ever Stanford Solar Decathlon team are building an energy-efficient solar house to participate in a two-year-long competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

This October, 20 collegiate teams from around the world will transport their completed solar homes to the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., where each team's structure will be open to the public and evaluated by judges in 10 categories such as affordability, energy balance and market appeal.

After hearing about the last Solar Decathlon, held in Washington, D.C., in 2011, Ouyang and a handful of other students were inspired to write a proposal to take part in the competition. In January of last year, the team was officially invited to participate. The department is giving them $100,000 to complete the project, a 1,000-square-foot energy-efficient solar home.

With the help of five carpenters, the team began construction in March and had the framework up within the first two weeks of construction, Ouyang said. He added that the team also has received funding through donations from Stanford and companies such as DIRECTV totaling $1 million. The money will go towards incentivizing participation in the project as well as travel and other expenses, and the overall projected cost to construct the home is $250,000.

Today, the team is made up of about 40 undergraduate and graduate students in disciplines like civil and environmental engineering, architectural design and computer science, and many of them spend hours every week either volunteering or doing paid construction and design work on the house.

One team member who spends anywhere from 15 to 20 hours a week on the project is Communications Leader Lilly Shi, a junior studying architectural design. She explained that the house, which the team has dubbed Start.Home, is a response to much of the modern-day rhetoric on energy-efficient homes.

"You see a lot of stuff in magazines and articles talking about smart homes that have great technology," she said, "but we didn't just want a smart home. We wanted something where people could interact with it. We envision this as a new lifestyle, a new tradition and a new generation."

In Smart.Home, interactivity takes the form of a built-in software system. A touch screen mounted on an interior wall acts as a control panel for the home, allowing occupants to monitor their energy consumption and turn appliances, and outlets, on or off, Shi said.

"People become an active aspect of the design and a part of the project," she added. "It's not a smart home — it's really a start. People can start prioritizing awareness through its integration into their every day lives."

Shi noted that the software system is just part of what makes the team's solar home special. She explained that the team has come up with a concept known as the "core," which "condenses a lot of the complicated systems. You have your kitchen and the bathroom and the laundry in the same area so right off the bat there's going to be most of your plumbing.

"This is going to be the powerhouse for your electricity and other things like that, so all of these wires and all of these tubes will run along the walls of the core to power the rest of the house, but it's still a functional architectural space."

Although the team is building their core on-site, Shi said that the team hopes to one day streamline the process by mass-producing cores at a factory. Because the core is a standard, centralized system containing all a solar home needs to function, people can customize their home's design around the core, which "literally plugs into the house," she said.

Because all of the home's pipes will be in one area, the core will also lend itself to easier maintenance and a greater understanding of the inner-workings of the home, leading to a "human-centered design that breaks the barrier between residents and their relationship with energy," Ouyang said.

Ouyang explained that the core of the house is connected to 48 solar panels on the roof. The home also features energy-efficient materials like insulated walls and a wax-like phase-change material found in the ceiling, whose chemical components allow it to store and release heat with external and internal temperature changes.

Ultimately, the team's goal is to create a net-zero home, which refers to a building that produces as much or more electricity than it consumes, Ouyang said.

As far as saving electricity through a reduction in temperature regulation, this particular home was designed with the Palo Alto climate in mind, Ouyang said. The area's characteristic mild-to-warm temperatures and ample sun informed the design of the home, which includes many windows to let in sunlight and folding patio doors that can open up the back of the home, facilitating air circulation.

For now, Shi said, the home is being built in five separate sections that can easily be taken apart. This is because in October, the team will have to disassemble the home and send it down to Southern California on four or five flatbed trucks, she said.

In preparation for the competition, some team members, such as freshman Diniana Piekutowski, will be staying at Stanford over the summer to finish construction and practice the process of taking apart the home and putting it back together.

Piekutowski, who joined the team after she heard about the project in a civil-engineering class, manages the group's Facebook page. She spoke of another eco-friendly aspect to the home. Greywater — which is water that has been used in the shower, sinks and washer — will be collected in a container and disseminated to the plants outside the home.

Eventually, there will be plenty of plants to water just outside the home, Piekutowski said. After the decathlon, Start.Home will become a permanent part of Stanford's biological reserve, Jasper Ridge.

Currently, Jasper Ridge's resident ranger, Brooke Fabricant, lives in a home on the 1,189-acre reserve located near Sand Hill and Portola roads. After the competition, Start.Home will house Fabricant and his family.

According to Piekutowski, Fabricant's current lodging "is pretty dilapidated, so it's good that he's getting a new home."

Regardless of the outcome of the competition, Ouyang is happy that Start.Home will have its place at Stanford for years to come. Stanford has agreed to maintain the home, and Fabricant will allow students and researchers to tour the home and learn from the experiences of the family and the information they will pull from the home's software system.

"The end result is that there will be a real family living there so we get all the great data that we'd want from a residence," he said.


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