CMU students prepare for Solar Decathlon

by Ann Wootton
Junior Staffwriter

Carnegie Mellon students are leading the Pittsburgh Synergy team designing and building a solar house for the worldwide Solar Decathlon competition. Next October, teams from colleges around the world will come together in Washington, D.C., to present their solar houses on the National Mall as a ?solar village.? Organizers of the competition hope that the designs will ?show us how we can live with abundance and comfort in beautiful, energy-efficient, completely solar-powered homes.?
Pittsburgh Synergy?s multidisciplinary team of architects, designers and engineers brings together over 50 students from Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh to collaborate on different aspects of the project. The students will spend over a year researching their materials and drawing out their plans, finally constructing their solar house on Carnegie Mellon?s campus. Finally, the students will split the building up into sections, load it onto a flatbed truck and transport it to Washington. During the competition, Synergy?s design, like every house, will go through a series of ten tests ranging from energy efficiency to design and habitability.
Ashok Kanagasundram, the teaching assistant for the School of Architecture?s Solar Decathlon class, described Synergy as the ?cr?me de la cr?me of group projects.? Since the current trend in architecture is to follow a more collaborative approach, he feels it is important for the students in his class to learn how group projects ?take shape and evolve.?
Another large focus of Solar Decathlon is the hands-on, student-driven nature of the project. Group member Diane Loviglio, a senior BHA architecture and anthropology major, said, ?It?s awesome that we have the opportunity to have this real-life applied learning.? Although she acknowledged that it?s important for students to learn skills in the classroom, she said, ?I work best seeing and doing, and so I need to be on site.?
Kanagasundram said that the students will also have an opportunity to ?be creative,? down to the level of exploring which materials to use for the house. Through this process, members ?gain a really keen awareness of what a material is like and how it behaves? and the ?different ways that materials harmonize and complement each other.?
For Kanagasundram, this project ?showcases what buildings today can do? and gives the students the ?opportunity to share their ideals with a larger audience.? He said that their architecture professor, Steve Lee, described the project as ?the largest soapbox you guys will ever have.? For Kanagasundram, it is ?a stage to demonstrate to large audiences? that these technologies ?are feasible today, not just something in the future.?
For Kanagasundram, Solar Decathlon is also an opportunity to ?challenge the norms of architecture.? The students involved in this project will design an 800-square-foot house for a single family, a design rarely found in today?s new housing market. In a world of sprawling front lawns and two-story living rooms, the smaller physical and ecological footprint of the Solar Decathlon building is an ?opportunity to contradict those notions? that bigger suburban homes are better.
Having been to the Solar Decathlon competition two years ago, Kanagasundram is excited to see the variety of solutions that students will come up with for this project. He also looks forward to the large range in aesthetics that will frame the houses, from more traditional ideas of what a house should be to contemporary and unusual buildings that walk the line between architecture, sculpture and sustainable design.