“We have learned what hard work can create”
Norwich forges its own path at Solar Decathlon
The Delta T90 was just a little bit different.
Compared with some entries in the 2013 Solar Decathlon, Norwich University’s take on energy-efficient housing was modest. Its lines were understated; the siding was simple white cedar planks; the solar array was hidden from view on the roof; and the water, heating and electrical systems required no networked control-and-monitoring devices.
Many houses at the October 2013 event – the Department of Energy’s semiannual international design contest – tended to be more fanciful, with elaborate ideas of new and different ways of living. Norwich’s house organized two good-sized bedrooms, bathroom and living room/kitchen into a simple, open floor plan.
The Norwich team also put much of its two years of effort into affordability, with a price tag determined at $168,000; $60,000 or more below the lowest competitor. Their project, team members said, was about addressing a deficit in affordable housing and making solar power accessible to everyone.
“The Delta T90 house is something that is beautiful in its simplicity,” said Douglas Nelson, a senior architecture student from Irasburg, Vt. “It’s a really great expression of what you can do for a family that can’t afford a $300,000 house.”For the first few days of competition, Delta T90, named for the 90-degree temperature differential residents of Vermont experience each year, captured a lot of attention. Norwich was the first team approved for exhibition, zipping through the two-week setup and testing phases without a hitch. Event organizers called Norwich, “the team to watch.”
But as the 10 contests began to unfold, the point totals of many of the other 18 teams surged forward. Houses were judged by a complicated system of juries and minute calculations. Delta T90, with its small solar array and simple utility systems, was not able to generate as much electricity and slipped toward the middle of the pack. Even a first-place finish for affordability failed to yield a satisfying bump: Equal points were awarded to every house that could be built for less than $250,000.
It was largely a question of goals, explained Matt Lutz, assistant professor of architecture and the team’s lead advisor. Norwich students chose to pursue their goal of a design that addressed the shortage of affordable housing, even though they were aware cutting-edge architecture and engineering were key to scoring big. He called it a conscious decision.
“I think we stuck to our guns and we brought something to the event that no other team did,” said Lutz. “We looked beyond first place.”
At the end of the competitive portion of the 10-day event, Norwich placed 12th out of 19 teams with 877 out of a possible 1,000 points. Team members admitted to feeling a bit down about the final score.
And then, out of the blue, something unexpected happened. Solar Decathlon director and founder Richard King and wife Melissa announced there was to be one more award at the final celebration. This would be in memory of the qualities of Byron Stafford, a pivotal organizer of the event who died in May 2013. They described him as honest, caring, humble, intelligent, fair, reliable, steadfast and genuine, and said the award would go to Norwich University.
“When we were told we won the award at that ceremony, we thought that was even better than getting first place at the competition,” said Kimberly Lynch.
The Solar Village
Lynch, a senior from Long Island, N.Y., had been working hard pointing out Delta T90 features and answering questions from thousands of visitors who trekked though the exhibition in Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. Students divided into shifts to keep the house and information booth staffed, and to give everyone a chance to keep up with schoolwork.
She’s an architecture student, but the team included engineers, business students and engineering management majors. All lived in an apartment complex a few miles away and shared responsibilities for meals and transportation.Solar houses were set up in two columns along a quarter mile of a former airstrip. The flat terrain and massive California sky spread around the park, with desert mountains in the distance and a friendly Jack-O-lantern air balloon bobbing on the horizon. For a month, the Solar Village was the center of their lives.
Kate O’Brien, a senior architecture student from Clinton, Conn., called the contest a chance to spend time with hundreds of students from all over the world who speak the same language of design innovation, construction and energy efficiency – and a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Lutz said he believes the competition is an experience that will stick with students the rest of their lives.
“They all became a really vital, integral part of something so much bigger than themselves,” he said.
Houses of the future
Close to the Delta T90, there was a house built on tracks automated to split apart and open up to the sun. The team from the Czech Republic clustered the living area of their house into a single room, giving the majority of space over to porch living. Teams sheathed their buildings in metal, composite material and recovered barn boards. Solar arrays become roofs over walkways and decorative garden features. Tablet computers offering control of systems were embedded in walls like light switches. And every house produced more energy than it used – a competition first.
Norwich team members said it was difficult to pick a favorite house. All pointed out features that caught their fancy but had a hard time imagining what it would be like to live in most of the houses.
“The ideas are there. Some of them are just very unrealistic for most of the people in our nation at this time,” said Jayson Sterba, a senior architecture student.
Nelson said he was impressed by how beautiful and elegant the homes were, but felt they were beyond most people’s financial range and didn’t really consider how people live.
“Our project is real and our project is understandable,” he said. “Everyone can relate to our project.”
Lynch said she sometimes wished the DOE weighed affordability more in judging, a sentiment underscored by dozens of conversations she had with people who toured Delta T90. People really responded to the estimated price and the design geared to easy replication by home builders.
“When they heard how low our cost was, they were just astonished they could possibly afford a house like this,” she said.
Students dismantled Delta T90 in five days, and prepared it for shipment to Ohio. There, it joins the Wescott House, a Frank Lloyd Wright prairie-style house that serves as museum and educational space. Norwich’s house will become a lab for demonstrating clean-energy technology.
Marta Wojcik, executive director and curator of the Wescott House Foundation, said they were excited to partner with Norwich.
“We’ve been very interested in bringing a Solar Decathlon house as a laboratory to our site,” she said. “We’re just really excited about students exploring these new concepts.”
O’Brien said it will be bittersweet to see the house go, but the Wescott House provides a perfect place where it can continue to educate.
“It’s countless the number of lives we are going to be able to touch through this process,” she said.
Success in California
The 2013 Solar Decathlon is over, and students are taking the Delta T90 apart for shipment to Springfield, Ohio, where it will become part of an education center at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wescott House.
Learn about the special award given to Norwich at the conclusion of the international design and energy-efficiency contest.
Voting is over! Winners to be announced.
The voting for the People’s Choice Award is over. The big announcement will be on Saturday, Oct. 12. Thanks to all of you who voted for us! The winner will be announced at the US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon site.
California here we are
So much has happened in a very short time.
Following a successful sendoff event at the Vermont Statehouse, which included speeches from Gov. Peter Shumlin, Norwich President Richard Schneider and Middlebury College President Ronald Liebowitz, students jetted off to California Thursday to catch up with the house they built.
The Delta-T90 house, which took a circuitous route across the country, down through the southern states on two trailer trucks, was already in Irvine, ready to receive them. Over the next month, waves of students will fly to California. They have about two weeks to assemble the house to full functioning capability. On Oct. 3, 2013, the contest begins.
During the Solar Decathlon contest period of Oct. 3 to 13, tens of thousands of visitors are expected to come to Orange Country Great Park to view the 20 contest entries, and learn about the amazing work students have done to design and build their houses, and figure out how to get them to California.
It’s going to be an exciting time for Norwich. Check back for updates!
“If it is asserted that civilization is a real advance in the condition of man – and I think it is, though only the wise improve their advantages, it must be shown that it has produced better dwellings without making them more costly; and the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”
–Henry David Thoreau
The Norwich University ∆T90 team recognizes a housing crisis in New England. In 2010, approximately 47% of renters, and 38% of Vermont homeowners paid more than one-third of their income for housing. Close to a third of Vermont’s existing housing stock was built prior to 1950 with inadequate insulation, inefficient heating systems, and sub-standard window and door assemblies. Leaky construction combined with severe winter cold and high fuel costs force many Vermonters to pay annual energy costs that approach or equal their existing mortgage costs.
The ∆T90 team believes that high performance solar powered dwellings should be accessible to all and that good design isn’t a function of cost. We’re confronting the issues related to high performance and affordability for New England by taking an unapologetic design position driven by performance criteria, building science, and time honored architectural maneuvers. Our team is committed to providing a hammer-ready, widely accessible solution for New England’s unique challenges.
During Solar Decathlon 2013, Norwich University will present a commercially available 1000 square foot, two-bedroom, one bath, modular home that is tuned for the unique seasons of the northeastern bioregion. Our goal is to exhibit a home that demonstrates a significantly better cost-to-performance ratio and raises the higher standard of what to expect from a high performance affordable home.