Decathletes wield blueprints for solar competition
While the world’s Olympic decathletes sweat and strain in London this summer, a different group of decathletes at USC will be expending brainpower on a goal no less daunting.
USC School of Architecture students are spearheading a campus-wide effort to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) 2013 Solar Decathlon — a project that involves building an innovative, energy-efficient home not once, not twice, but three times.
Based on the technical proposal and concept design, USC was one of 20 U.S. and four international university-based teams awarded $100,000 earlier this year to start their participation in the biennial competition. The DOE noted that the competition was fierce, with twice as many proposals reviewed as could be accepted.
The event, which has taken place in Washington, D.C., since 2002, will be held next year at the Great Park in Orange County, Calif. The site, the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, is being turned into sustainable parkland by the city of Irvine. The Solar Decathlon’s village of houses will be built on a paved former runway and will be open for the public to tour on two weekends in October 2013.
Other California teams selected were Stanford University, Santa Clara University and a joint team from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the California Institute of Technology. The international teams are from Austria, the Czech Republic, and Ontario and Alberta, Canada.
Like their athletic counterparts, the USC decathletes face 10 challenges. Instead of the long jump and javelin, teams will compete in the categories of affordability, appliances, architecture, comfort zone, energy balance, engineering, home entertainment, hot water, market appeal and communications.
The winner of the competition, the DOE stated, “is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.”
The USC entry will involve faculty and students from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, the USC School of Cinematic Arts, the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the USC Rossier School of Education, the USC Marshall School of Business, the LA/USC Smart Grid program and USC’s Center for Energy Nanoscience, among others.
The combined wisdom on campus is expected to provide expertise in photovoltaic technologies, digital computing, building information modeling, energy analysis, construction management, innovative materials, communication techniques, and sustainability and climate engineering.
Teams are expected to raise their own funds, and the USC team will need to raise an additional $1.3 million to be used for operational support, curriculum integration and the cost of building materials, construction and moving the 1,000-square-foot dwelling from its original site to the competition venue and then to a permanent site.
The USC plan is to construct the home next fall on the south lawn adjacent to the School of Architecture’s studio facilities, near Entrance 1 on Exposition Boulevard. After it is constructed and all appliances and utilities are working correctly, the house will be dismantled, loaded on flatbed trucks and reassembled in Orange County for the October 2013 judging. After the competition, the team hopes to reconstruct the house in a permanent location for a deserving family in the neighborhood surrounding the University Park Campus.
Having the competition in California is an advantage for the USC team, as the home will be designed in the same climate where it will be tested and eventually built, said visiting School of Architecture faculty member Gary Paige, who is co-directing the project with associate professor Alice Kimm, the school’s undergraduate director.
“The team’s idea is to turn the tract house inside out, blurring the boundaries between interior and exterior,” Paige said.
The group’s proposal describes the house as evolving from two Southern California traditions — the bungalow and the courtyard house — and being as experimental as the Case Study Houses of the 1940s and ’50s in its use of technology.
The USC entry has a working title of Plenum House. A plenum is a space, often under the structural ceiling or under a raised floor, which provides air circulation for heating or air conditioning. The preliminary design includes light and air chimneys that support a canopy roof and photovoltaic panels that shade, vent and modulate the flow of sunlight and air to the living spaces below.
The design began last fall with a collaborative planning session called a charrette. Research continued with an architecture studio in spring led by Paige and assistant professor Mario Cipresso, and a research seminar conducted by Paige that was open to graduate and undergraduate students.
This summer, two of the students in that class, along with three new students, are continuing to work on the entry in a directed research studio led by Paige and Cipresso. All are fourth- and fifth-year BArch students, along with one 2012 BArch graduate. In the fall, Paige will teach another studio course focusing on design development, preparing construction documents and fabricating full-scale mockups to test various ideas.
The students recently had their first internal review of their plans. In a three-hour session in Watt Hall, Paige and Cipresso were joined by architecture professors David Gerber, Gail Borden and Anders Carlson, who critiqued two sets of foam-board models and drawings the students had prepared.
The professors peppered the students with questions on the two plans:
“How do you differentiate yourself? How does the structure get broken down? Where’s the plane of enclosure? What about the issue of sound? Can you have more of an open plan with modules formed offsite?”
They had several complaints:
“I’m surprised the kitchen isn’t open to the outside. There are no walls to hang anything on. You need something that announces the entrance. The social space is all in the back.”
To balance the criticism, they also had compliments:
“The notion of the moveable insulated curtain is pretty interesting. You aren’t reinventing the wheel, but it’s innovative. Those sleeping porches relate to Greene & Greene and Schindler’s houses.”
Finally, the reviewers provided advice:
“Everything in the house has to do double duty. Take a look at how they build ships and large hotels, with prefabricated units. Think about built-in furniture with pieces that buckle together, fold down or slide out. Consider phase-ability and how you can add another living unit to the construction later.”
The students seemed to take it all in stride but understandably were a bit weary after three hours of explaining, defending, listening and note-taking.
Alain Peschard ’12, Alex Sheft, Kai Nguyen and Evyn Larson barely got any sleep the night before, they admitted. Instead of being in bed, they were burning the midnight oil at Watt Hall, putting in the hours of training that all decathletes know so well.
For information on donating to the USC Solar Decathlon team, contact Carrie Banasky at the USC School of Architecture at firstname.lastname@example.org.