The design for Solar Home at Georgia Tech
When I heard about Solar Home at Georgia Tech, also referred to as the GT Solar Home or just Solar Home, I thought it was one of the most interesting green initiatives on campus. It is just what it sounds. It’s a house powered by solar energy! Although construction won’t begin until the spring semester of 2017, the concept designs are beautiful. What’s even more impressive is that the project is completely student designed. The team is comprised of 43 students, both undergraduates and grad students, including several engineering students and computer science students, 11 architecture students, and four business students. They are assisted by Principle Investigator Ravi Subramanian, along with Charles Rudolph, Cassandra Telenko, and Matthew Realff.
I recently had the chance to interview William Courrèges-Clercq, the business team lead of the Georgia Teach Solar Decathlon Team. He’s been with the team since its inception in Fall of 2015. He explained that Solar Home is the result of the passion he and Alex Poux, a mechanical engineering major and project lead for Solar Home, have for sustainability and Atlanta.
What is Solar Decathlon?
“A Solar Decathlon competition is held every two years. It’s really 10 competitions. The next Solar Decathlon will be held in Denver, Colorado in 2017. It’s an energy contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy for collegiate teams, and it’s a way to show, through the prototype houses built by college students, that solar energy is for the general public. It’s an incentive for people to buy solar houses. Solar energy is getting much more efficient, and Georgia is one of the best states in the U.S. for solar energy collection. Solar is clean energy, and net zero solar energy is close to complete maturity. The industry has grown so much in the last 10 to 15 years.”
What’s the driving force behind Solar Home at Georgia Tech?
“As Georgia Tech students, we’re here for four years in Atlanta, maybe five, and it’s really unfortunate that people don’t take advantage of being here. Atlanta is the leading hub for sustainability in the Southeast and also one of the leaders nationwide. We want to give back to the Atlanta community by constructing a house made in Atlanta, by Atlanta, for Atlanta by the students of Georgia Tech. One of the big ideas that started this project was water management. Atlanta has massive flooding and sewage overflow because Atlanta’s water system is overburdened. But there’s actually a regional problem here—it’s not just an Atlanta issue. You have the Water Wars between Florida, Georgia, and Alabama suing each other for water rights. Solar Decathlon juries have a tendency to stress local and regional issues, so that’s our big motivation for this project—that we can take the first steps to minimize ecological damage and legal tensions as a result of the Tri-State Water Wars.”
How, when, and where will Solar Home be constructed?
“We plan to start construction in January at the Strategic Energy Institute. We plan to do prototyping in the fall and start construction in January. For Solar Decathlon, the houses can be a maximum of 1000 square feet, so the GT Solar Home will be about 9oo square feet with two bedrooms and one bathroom. The hope is that construction will finish by the end of the spring 2017 semester. I imagine that the house will probably be a mix of wood and metal structurally, aluminum cladding, and like in the Living Building at Georgia Tech, we are seeking to avoid using Red List products when possible. We plan to test and refine the house in the summer. And then we will deconstruct the house, put it on a truck, and send it to Denver, Colorado for the competition at the end of September, beginning of October 2017. After the competition, we will deconstruct the house and ship it back to Atlanta. Its final site has not been determined yet, but the hope is that it will be placed somewhere in Atlanta’s Westside area.”
Another rendering of Solar Home's design
How will Solar Home make use of solar energy?
“Solar Decathlon only allows solar. We will be using an eight kilowatt photovoltaic array, so solar panels, on top of the house. We intend to save energy using a very efficient HVAC system and we are designing a grey water filtration system as well. We expect to have battery power as well in the house. The sun is not always out and there are clouds, so the way we deal with these challenges is we’ll have battery backup in the house and grid hookup, which is a Solar Decathlon requirement. Solar Decathlon houses used to be completely autonomous, but that posed a lot of problems. We’re trying to use our IoT (Internet of Things) system to help the user conserve water and be more efficient but to also inform the user of their energy usage and how to conserve more. We can use the computerized system to help the homeowner to do what is most efficient by controlling when the house should pull energy from the solar panels, when to pull from the battery, when to pull from the grid, and when to sell back to the grid to make the most money.”
You said that one of the main motivations for starting the Georgia Tech Solar Decathlon Team was water management. What is Solar Home’s water management plan?
“Water filtration is not all that easy. We seek to use compostable toilets to cut water usage and the amount of black water. We also are seeking to implement bio-swales. They are like elevated ponds that will be at the entrance and around the house with plants growing in them. They are another way to filter and clean grey water. We’ll also have rainwater and stormwater collection systems. Net zero water is a really difficult goal to get to and it hasn’t been done yet in Solar Decathlon. We want to get as close to net zero water as we can, but it might just not be cost effective for the size of the house because it’s easier on a larger scale. We will try for net zero energy though.”
A rendering of the bio-swale that will be at the front of the house
What other challenges come with this project?
“Money! Transportation is easily biggest challenge. Besides building the actual house itself, transportation is the single biggest ticket item. Getting the house to Colorado costs upwards of $100,000. The whole project will cost around $700,000 to do. So if you want to donate, go to gtf.gatech.edu.”
What can other people do to get involved?
“We encourage you to reach out to us. Check out our website and follow our social media outlets. More broadly, there are lots of sustainability initiatives on campus. Serve-Learn-Sustain has many great events to get students involved, and there are lots of courses in sustainability that you can take. It’s been really great having a course attached to our project.”