June 12, 2012
The University of Calgary’s Solar Decathlon design team is celebrating their Emerald Award win.
The Emerald Awards are given out by the Alberta Emerald Foundation to showcase environmental leadership in Alberta. At the awards ceremony in Calgary last week, the team received an Emerald Award in the Education category for their TRTL (Technological Residence, Traditional Living) home plus a trophy and a $5,000 cash prize.
The team, which competed in the U.S Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon (Washington, DC.) was made up of a number of different UofC faculties and over 100 students. They partnered with Native communities of Treaty 7 and major sponsor Cenovus to take on the challenge of developing sustainable housing and addressing the needs of First Nations communities. UofC was the only Canadian entry in the competition and ended up placing tenth in an international field of 19 competitors. The house was also the most popular. It logged the highest number of visitors during the competition.
The house, which was designed and built by the students now is located on the UoC campus. And the experience gained, with the $5,000 cash prize will drive the design of the next solar house for the 2013 Solar Decathlon competition.
For the new competition UofC will collaborate with SAIT and Mount Royal University. They will again go up against an international field as well as a new Canadian competitor from Queen’s University, Carleton University and Algonquin College.
August 4, 2009
On the day I visit the Enmax Solabode, a model solar home being erected on the western edge of the Southern Alberta Institute for Technology’s campus, rainclouds are looming above the site’s domed tent. But if the sun is currently being blocked by cloud and canvas, it’s only a temporary condition for a project with an eye to a solar future.
The Solabode is the creation of a four-institution partnership between the University of Calgary, Mount Royal College, SAIT and the Alberta College of Art + Design, who together form Team Alberta — one of 20 teams set to participate in the fourth U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. An opportunity to showcase the best in modern energy-saving appliances and building techniques, as well as their teams’ abilities to synthesize that technology in innovative ways, the contest is a unique opportunity and a first for Alberta. As the province’s first entry in the contest, Team Alberta joins Team North as one of only two Canadian teams.
In planning since 2008, the Solabode will join its competitors in Washington, D.C. beginning on October 8, 2009, competing in 10 contests testing dimensions like architecture and “comfort zone” before returning their creation to Alberta, where it will likely become an educational tool for secondary and post-secondary students. Education, in fact, has always been an essential part of the project.
Over the whine of radial saws slicing above, project manager Matt Beck explains that while the project’s slate of sponsors and partner institutions may be considerable, the project’s beginnings lie in the students that currently make up its mostly volunteer-based team.
“We’ve been a very student-led initiative from day one,” he says. “Initially it was one guy, Project Chairman Mark Blackwell who discovered this opportunity and floated the idea around to some students involved with the University of Calgary’s Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy.”
From that initial proposal the project began attracting other students, including Beck, who is a graduate student in the U of C’s Environmental Design program, as well as faculty advisors whose recommendations have added a few more eager students to the mix. Counting among its ranks graduate students, undergraduate students and other classifications like applied and associate degrees, Solabode’s team does employ paid contractors but still relies heavily on hundreds of volunteer hours from students across the city.
“That’s the first time that’s happened, where grassroots student collaboration has yielded four major institutions in Calgary coming together to work on one project,” says Beck. “We’re really excited about that.”
Portable Net Zero Design
At the beginning of July, several months into its construction, the Solabode looks like a relatively unassuming start up—the wooden frame made so familiar in construction sites around the country during the recent housing boom. But its familiarity hides subtle improvements already built into the home, including structural insulated panels; sandwiches of wood and foam whose built-in insulation makes them far more efficient than standard insulation—they have an “R” value of 40, rather than the R-20 of conventional insulation. Together with these and other features like solar thermal panelling, the intent is to create a home capable of being “net zero,” drawing no more power from conventional electrical grids than it ultimately returns to them.
“Calgary is Canada’s sunniest city,” says Beck, “so it’s a prime jumping off point for solar residential design.”
Once finished, the entire house will be capable of being broken down into 12-feet-wide modules that will then be slid, using the rail system that forms the home’s mobile foundation, onto trucks for their journey to Washington. These modules include a kitchen, a bedroom, the house’s “core” and a living room so small that construction manager Turc Harmesynn explains it’s jokingly referred to as the couch module.
It’s a compact design that has allowed the team to create a home that shows off more than just its portability, says Beck.
“A lot of the houses in this competition have what one of our competitors called the highway aesthetic: a box that could go on a trailer on wheels and get trucked into place,” he explains. “We really worked hard to create something that does not look like a manufactured home and set ourselves apart in that way.”
Even as a bare frame, the house’s aesthetic is already beginning to show through. A wall of black stone sits in the house’s core, quarried in Canmore, and the house’s slanted roof offers both access to its electricity generating solar panels and a chance for its wearied hypothetical owners to relax on a rooftop patio. And while no sunlight is currently making its way into the site, a horizontal slat cuts through the house’s centre, the beginning of what will eventually become a keyway—a home-spanning window that will spill light from the outside throughout the home.
“You’re looking into the shower right now,” says Harmesynn as he points to the keyway, adding with a laugh: “but so long as the glass fogs up we’ll be okay.”
The home, already illustrated in computer renderings created by the project’s ACAD collaborators, is as strikingly angular as it is technologically advanced. Waxing a little rhapsodic on their website, the team imagines a home that “responds to and reflects the landscape of Alberta and western Canada, by synthesizing four elements: wood, water, stone and light.” But if its team is banking on the aesthetic appeal of its Solabode, it’s ultimately in its advanced technical features that the team will be showcasing the potential for existing solar technology.
An Eye on the Future
On the Solabode’s roof, 37 Samsung solar panels will interlock to form a seamless, shining square, and monitoring systems throughout the home will track power use and generation. Its windows are triple-glazed, filled with a special kind of gas and coated with a film that optimizes the glass’s thermal resistance, and every appliance, including a flat-panel TV consuming no more than a 60-watt light bulb, has been selected for maximum efficiency. But efficiency doesn’t necessarily come cheap.
At $450,000 in material costs alone, Beck acknowledges that the 800-square-foot home is built for a hypothetical consumer with the means to own a home that uses only the best of the best. He adds, however, that a large percentage of the home’s building costs are based on the unique requirements of the Solar Decathlon, requirements that will in turn provide useful data. While the sheer volume of available information will require that only a limited amount be offered on the Solabode website, Beck envisions a continuing to use the house use as an educational tool long after this year’s Decathlon.
“We’ve been talking with people in the Calgary Board of Education and the Catholic School Board about having their students, while we’re down in Washington, follow all of the power data coming from the home we’re monitoring,” he explains. “Our production, our consumption and the temperature of the solar thermal temperatures will be available online so people can come and see how the home is actually performing and also see how we’re doing against the other teams.”
With the contest set to begin in October and the call for submissions for the 2011 contest expected shortly thereafter, Beck and his team are already thinking about their next submission, a bid built on the partnerships already formed by this year’s entry. Clouds may be rolling in on this particular day, but Beck has an intensely bright outlook on the future of the project and its capacity to draw students looking for experience in the solar building industry.
“It’s that Stampede spirit, but you see it all year round,” he says. “People want to help out and get involved in things like this. We’ve had a great amount of support from the local business community and the city has come onboard and helped us out, we’re looking forward to being able to do this again in 2011.”