Solar House comes home to Urbana


Rick Kubetz

After six years "on tour," the University of Illinois’ Element House returned home on Wednesday, August 14. Built in 2007 to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon competition, the totally solar-powered house has been on display at the Chicago Center for Green Technology for the past five years. Its new home will be located at the Energy Biosciences Institute Research Farm just south of the U of I campus (4110 S. Race Street, Urbana).

"This new facility is an ideal location to accommodate the Element House," explained Robert Coverdill, director of advancement and outreach, Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering at Illinois. "The 2011, Re_home, is less than a half of a mile from the proposed site, and there is sufficient land south of the Research Center to eventually accommodate three of the Solar Decathlon demonstration homes. (The 2009 entry is currently located near the iHotel).

"With a full time management and technical staff, EBI is enthusiastic about incorporating Element House into their operation, including potential use as a 'researcher in residence' facility. It connects
nicely with their bioenergy development research mission."

The Element House was designed and built by a collaborative team of architecture, engineering, and industrial design students to compete in the U.S. Dept. of Energy's 2007 Solar Decathlon competition, held in Washington D.C. on the National Mall. After two years in planning and development, the University's first Solar Decathlon entry finished 9th overall in 2007. Following the competition, The Element House was relocated and reassembled at the Chicago Center for Green Technology (CCGT) in Chicago, where several thousand visitors toured the house when it was featured during a Green Tech conference in 2007.

"Since 2002 the DOE has hosted five events with a sixth to be held in California later this year," explained Mark Taylor, assistant professor in the School of Architecture at Illinois. "The format of 10 events that assess marketability, energy efficiency, engineering and design has been adopted by government agencies in Europe and China to further research into energy efficient living.

"(As part of the Solar Decathlon competition) More than 140 houses have been built and tested in various locations around the world," added Taylor, who served as one of the team’s faculty advisors for the Solar Decathlon 2009 and in 2011. "Following each competition, the majority of the demonstration homes are disassembled and returned to the institutions where they were built. Some have been bought by private individuals while others have become rental accommodation for students. One became a visitors' center at a zoo."

"The intention of the Solar Decathlon team was always to return the Element House to a suitable location on campus where the building could be used for ongoing education and research in renewable (clean) energy, and where it could be viewed by visitors, especially local K-12 school groups," Coverdill said. "The original plan was to bring the house back to campus in 2008, but due to a budget deficit, funds were not available to make the move to the Energy Farm at that time.” Since then those involved in the project have pursued numerous attempts to relocate the house but all have struggled to find sufficient funding.

The physical value of the house, which is powered solely by the sun, is in the range of $150,000 - $225,000. The investment in the project in terms of faculty and student research hours doubles that investment. Today, the Solar Decathlon team is a registered student organization (RSO) with more than 100 members across the Urbana campus.

"Because the 2013 Solar Decathlon team is participating in China, there have been fewer local project opportunities to engage the very large Solar Decathlon RSO," Coverdill noted. "We see this house as providing just such an opportunity." It will likely take two semesters to fully refurbish and update the house, with a "grand reopening" possible at the end of the spring 2014 semester.

The University of Illinois is the only school to be invited to each of the past three Solar Decathlon international events hosted in the United States, earning 2nd place honors in 2009, and 7th place overall in 2011. Taylor is looking forward to see how the Element House performance compares to with the other two buildings he is already monitoring for energy production and consumption. He also
wants to extend the opportunity for students of all levels (undergraduates to prospective PhDs) to learn from the research already completed, and contribute to the ongoing investigations into houses that can produce more energy than they consume.

"There is a long history of research into energy efficient building design across campus," Taylor remarked. "Bringing the Element House back to the U of I is a special kind of ‘Homecoming’ that I hope will inspire the next generation of engineers and designers to develop their research."

Since opening in 2007 the Energy Bioscience Institute Farm has welcomed more than 2,000 visitors ranging from top executives from BP and Under Secretaries of Agriculture and Energy, federal program managers, and EPA staff, to various environmental non-governmental organizations, managers of venture capital firms, high school and university students, plus farmers, equipment manufacturers, and land-owners from across the U.S. and around the globe.

"This is the largest experimental farm in the U.S., dealing with second generation sustainable bioenergy crops, and supports a wide range of rural bioenergy projects and assessments of environmental services," said EBI Farm Manager Tim Mies. "Combining the Element House with the Energy Farm, would increase the visibility of both. While the houses may provide accommodation for short-term research visitors, this location would also provide a one-stop site to see a collection of diverse interdisciplinary research activities addressing the challenges of climate change."