Solar Decathlon 2011

By Melia Sandler

Two years ago, architecture professor Marilys Nepomechie and a group of FIU students conceived a home design perfect for South Florida – one that could get all its energy from the sun. This fall, they traveled to Washington, D.C., and built that house for a world-renowned competition: the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.

“I’m really excited to represent FIU on such an international stage,” said Nepomechie, noting this is the second time FIU has been invited to compete. 

FIU, one of 20 teams from around the world invited this year, tying for first place for energy balance, producing all the power the house used with its solar array. Overall, FIU placed eleventh, defeating Team China, Team New York and Team New Jersey, among others. FIU competed on its own, but several other teams were partnerships among institutions from a country or state – including Team Florida, which comprised the University of Florida, Florida State University, the University of South Florida, and the University of Central Florida. Team Florida placed last overall. The University of Maryland won.

During the decathlon, the team saw 2,500 to 4,000 visitors a day. The contest was held in West Potomac Park near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., Sept. 23-Oct. 2.

"It was great to see people's faces light up when we explained how the house worked,” said Deana Sritalapat ‘11, who invested two years in the project and earned her master’s degree in architecture from FIU this summer. “A lot of people were inspired by it and it was nice to see our hard work affecting somebody like that."

The Department of Energy first held the Solar Decathlon in 2002, and FIU first competed in 2005. The prestigious biennial competition challenges more than 4,000 students from around the world. The goal is to prepare and inspire tomorrow’s architects and engineers and to show the world comfortable, cost-efficient, “green” housing.

Exterior architectural photograph of FIU entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 Teams demonstrated “how clean-energy products and efficient building design can help families and businesses reduce energy use and save money,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said.

FIU students put in 10- to 20-hour days in the final months preparing their home for competition, said Alvaro Gazo, who worked on FIU’s house for 18 months. He graduated with his master’s degree in architecture this summer but continued to volunteer until the house was complete.

FIU’s team united several disciplines. Nepomechie, the team’s faculty advisor, and student project manager Andy Madonna led a diverse group of more than 40 architecture, engineering, interior design, computer science, landscape architecture, and journalism students.

FIU’s multidisciplinary design and construction team envisioned and built what they call the “perFORM[D]ance House.” The 780-square-foot home (with a 1,500-square-foot porch/pavilion) was designed for a fictional wheelchair user and her husband.

“It’s named perFORM[D]ance because the house is able to adapt to the needs of the user,” said Ryan Reznichek ‘11, who earned his master’s degree in construction management in May and stayed on to finish the house. “It actually performs and dances to the subtropical conditions in Florida,” complete with customized louvers that provide shade, security and protection from hurricane-force winds. 

Among its amenities are an edible garden, lights and electrical systems that can be controlled by a smart phone, and solar panels that convert the sun’s energy into electricity and heat water. Judges ranked the homes in these 10 categories: architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, maintaining comfortable temperature, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, energy balance and a new category – affordability.

“These are not supposed to be the houses of the future. They are the houses of today,” Nepomechie said. Energy-efficient living “needs to be something that everyone does. The Solar Decathlon is a way of showing people that it is possible.”

FIU’s house was designed and built for fast and easy assembly and disassembly. Each of the home’s two main areas – a dining room/living room section and a kitchen/bed/bath/mechanical module – fit on the back of a flatbed truck.

Ultimately, it took three months to build the whole house working in three-hour shifts with a crew of 10 people, Gazo said. Then the team took it apart so it could be trucked to D.C. for the competition. There, the team had five days to rebuild it.

“It was a good experience," said Sritalapat. "I don't know if we've ever been so exhausted, but I also don't think we've ever done something so rewarding."

Following the solar decathlon, the perFORM[D]ance house will continue to serve as a model for sustainable living at FIU. Upon its return to Miami, it will become the permanent home of the FIU Office of Sustainability.

Melia Sandler is a writer who lives in the Washington, D.C., area.