UT Raises the Solar Roof

Students build all-solar house for national competition

UT Solar Decathlon Team members construct the all-solar 
house that will compete in Washington D.C.
UT Solar Decathlon Team members construct the all-solar house that will compete in Washington D.C.

The University of Texas Solar Decathlon Team held a ceremonial roof-raising Wednesday for an entirely solar-powered home in East Austin. The house is known as the SNAP (Super Nifty Action Package) house because its prefabricated parts are easily transportable on 18-wheelers and are designed to snap together at the job site using a foundation system of rails and rollers that allows each piece to be lowered off the truck, onto the rails, and rolled into place. Forty-five UT undergraduate and graduate students from the Schools of Architecture, Engineering, Law, and Liberal Arts collaborated on the design and building of the SNAP house, which is UT's entry in this year's international Solar Decathlon competition, a Department of Energy and National Renewable Energy Laboratory-organized event. Participating universities design and build an 800-square-foot, self-sufficient, solar-powered house to compete in 10 events that evaluate ingenuity, energy efficiency, and architecture. The intention of the competition is to demonstrate that solar power can support the average American lifestyle, a message to which the city of Austin could stand to pay close attention, considering the recent scrapping of a Zero Energy Homes subdivision project.

Solar power will meet all of the SNAP's energy needs, including heating, cooling, cooking, and appliances, thanks to forty-two 175-watt, 3-foot by 5-foot photovoltaic solar panels integrated into the architecture. The UT team won the panels, valued at $40,000, during a BP-sponsored competition in March. The house will produce excess energy, in fact, which will be utilized by an all-electric car, which each team was given as part of the competition. (UT claims its car will be capable of a 400- to 500-mile range.) Among other sustainable design features, the SNAP makes use of local materials, such as mesquite flooring (wood that would otherwise be disposed of), as well as recyclable materials, including the exterior zinc cladding. The house's design also promotes an indoor/outdoor lifestyle through a large back deck, and, among other things, includes a green grass roof in areas without solar panels, which is said to reduce the urban heat island effect.

"We've definitely had some bumps in the road," said UT SolarD spokeswoman Raina Tilden. "This is an all-student team with limited faculty input, so some of the design issues required on-site brainstorming and retrofitting." Tilden said the team has learned to accept the unpredictability of the process. "We've been so fortunate to get donations for building materials, but our orders often get pushed to the back of the line, and we've had problems getting them delivered on time." UT expects the house to be completed and furnished by the end of August. It will then travel, disassembled, to Washington, D.C., where students will put it together on the National Mall in September and October for the actual Solar Decathlon event.

The university plans to donate the SNAP to a local nonprofit when it returns from Washington in late October. Tilden says the home will either be used for affordable housing, as an office for an environmental organization, or as a display piece in a planned Southeast Austin Eco-Park. The house's performance and durability will be monitored for several years, she said. More info at www.utsolard.org.

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renewable energy, University of Texas, SNAP, Super Nifty Action Package, Solar Decathlon, Department of Energy, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Zero Energy Homes, Raina Tilden

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