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Making an ICON-ic statement about a better tomorrow?

October 7th, 2009 · 8 Comments

The University of Minnesota’s Solar Decathlon team’s handout to visitors to the DOE Solar Decathlon, which opens Thursday on the Mall in Washington, DC, (which I had a chance to visit earlier today) is subtitled “A New Tradition”. Their ICON Solar House hopefully is just that, a representation and sign of “a new tradition” that will help create a prosperous climate-friendly future for America and Americans.


One of the great problems of the Solar Decathlon is that there are reasons to be enamoured with and enthusiastic about all of the competitors, their homes, their philosophy of design/development, and the technologies that they have applied. Without a doubt, a quick visit highlighted reasons for enthusiasm about ICON and the people behind it.

First off, it is a beautiful sight (inside and out) from the clean, semi-traditional lines, the coloring, to the strong statement of solar paneling signaling that (at least for today) this is something different.

“The public can look at our house and see one they identify with. It’s a house that anyone could live in with things that go in a normal home, not the EPCOT Center,” ICON team member John Quinnell noted.

When it comes to technology, the Minnesota team has a ‘home grown’ desiccant system for dehumidifying the air which reduces the air conditioning burden. (The University of Maryland entry in the 2007 Decathlon used a desiccant system in a very aesthetic way. The ICON team decided to maximize efficiency, although their system (awaiting student patent applications, by the way) seems to have some quite interesting decorative potential. My thought: put the mixing area (clear) piping with some LED lighting to create a ‘fountain’ effect.)

Elsewhere, the technology more closely linked to the aesthetic. ICON has two types of PV panels, traditional, roof-mounted PV panels and dual-sided (bifacial) translucent panels. These panels, with a boosting of production by 30% over traditional panels (manufacturer’s claims),  provide privacy outside the building, a ‘wall’ that allows through some light while reducing wind exposure for the entry area.

Considering the lovely Minnesota winters, maxing out with R-70 insulation in ceilings and R-50 in the walls is the sort of path that provides serious efficiency.  (By the way, that R-50 might actually understate the full efficiency: the walls are staggered (to eliminate bridging loses) 2 by 2×4 structures with closed-cell insulation (rate this as 8 inches by 6+ R per inch: 48R+ with an additional layer of rigid insulation (another R-7, if I recall correctly) sandwiched within …)

This heavy insulation provides another path of combining technology with aesthetics. Heavily insulated walls can sweat, with the potential for interesting (can we say, very troublesome) problems. First off, rather than a “wall”, there is a rain screen (those beautiful red stripes), which allows airflow to help take moisture away from the house, and a high quality membrane behind it.  Highly effective while highly attractive.

ICON provides an excellent example of  challenges faced by, essentially, all of the competitors:

First, how to design their homes for year-round conditions in their home area while preparing for the competition environment in the unpredictable October weather of Washington, DC? That creates challenges and opportunities for each team. The Minnesota team, with the Icon House, faced the challenge of being so far north, requiring a different angle for the solar pv plus the challenges of hot summers. Thus, the design to enable effective pv placement and overhangs to cut summer heat gain. However, designing for Minnesota doesn’t mean designed well to compete at the Solar Decathlon which, of course, occurs in Washington, DC.

There is that minor little problem that drilling and digging aren’t exactly encouraged on The National Mall. For example, ICON’s ’shed’ represents a utility closet that might, more rationally, be in a basement. Many of the houses use geothermal systems — since no drilling on the Mall, lots of large tanks.

No matter how they place in the competition, this observer believes that the ICON team has much to be proud of …

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Tags: Energy · Solar Energy · eco-friendly · energy cool · solar · solar decathlon

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Penn State’s Natural Fusion // Oct 8, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    [...] Making an ICON-ic Statement about a Better Tomorrow: Univ of Minn on the Mall. [...]

  • 2 Paul Murray // Oct 8, 2009 at 8:26 pm

    I would be interested in learning the R - Value for the windows and areas allowing light to enter the home. R Values of 50 -70 will not mean much over conventional insulation if windows are R - 3 or 4!

    Paul — 1st. A good and accurate point in terms of needing the whole building envelope to have effective thermal protection.

    If window R - values are much greater than R-4,
    I will be VERY interested in how they are achieved.

    This is a question to ask the team … I will ask, but recommend that you contact them directly.

    Paul

  • 3 A Napa Solar Vision on The National Mall // Oct 8, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    [...] An ICON-ic statement about a better future [...]

  • 4 Net-zero houses, psychedelic appliances and more « Home Appliance Blog // Oct 9, 2009 at 10:15 am

    [...] Get Energy Smart Now lauded the University of Minnesota Solar Decathlon team for the technology, beauty and efficiency of its ICON Solar House. The post also pointed out that each college competitor in the Solar Decathlon faced the challenge of designing for year-round living. But after seeing some of the stuff teams from warmer climates can do with their designs in this Washington Post video taken at the competition site on the Washington Mall, it’s clear the Gophers didn’t exactly have a leg up, climate-wise. Mary Stage (Web administrator) and Carla Warner (director of sales) pose with Dan Handeen outside the U of M's Icon Solar House. [...]

  • 5 “CASH is green” // Oct 10, 2009 at 6:43 am

    [...] An ICON-ic statement about a better future [...]

  • 6 Johnny D // Oct 12, 2009 at 10:46 am

    Actually, Senator David Vitter visited the Beausoleil home on Thursday. He spent a while there visiting with the Team for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Cant’ speak for Landrieu. Don’t believe she’s been there

    Johnny. Thank you for the note. Searching the Senate website and the check of the Senators’ sites didn’t show this. I will change the discussion, in another post, which mentions Senator Vitter.

  • 7 A CHIP shot at a better future? // Sep 16, 2011 at 9:50 am

    [...] An ICON-ic statement about a better future [...]

  • 8 Bright Rays of Sunshine Hit DC: A preview of The Solar Decathlon // Sep 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    [...] An ICON-ic statement about a better future [...]

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