WPI Team Finishes Strongly in Solar Decathlon China 2013

Solar house designed and built by WPI, UGhent and NYU Poly takes 8th place out of 19 multi-national teams
August 12, 2013

The public was invited to tour the houses competing in the Solar Decathlon 2013

An international, multi-university team led by Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) took a respectful 8th place overall while finishing first and fourth in two juried categories in the prestigious Solar Decathlon China 2013 competition, held in Datong, China. This is the first time WPI has participated in Solar Decathlon competition. The results were announced after officials tabulated scores in the 10 criteria the solar homes were judged on.

The team's solar home, branded the Solatrium, was designed over the last year and built near the WPI campus early this year, then disassembled and shipped to China for the event, which began on Aug. 2 and will end Aug. 13. It will be taken apart and shipped back to the U.S., then reassembled at Institute Park, adjacent to the WPI campus, later in the fall.

WPI is the lead university in Team BEMANY, with members from Ghent University in Belgium and New York University Polytechnic Institute, one of 19 teams to participate in the Solar Decathlon competition in China. (The name BEMANY represents BE for UGhent in Belgium, MA for WPI in Massachusetts, and NY for NYU-Poly in New York.)

"We feel proud of our team and what we have been able to accomplish in this two-year endeavor," said team co-leader Tahar El-Korchi, professor and head of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at WPI. "We feel privileged to have been part of this incredible SD China experience. We truly felt like Olympians and Decathletes.

"We have learned so much from our peers, SD China hosts and Datong City hosts. We will cherish this experience for the rest of our lives and have developed long lasting personal bonds on so many levels."

This highly competitive program, a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of Energy and the China National Energy Administration, challenges university teams to design, build and operate attractive and affordable net-zero-energy houses powered by the sun. The team branded the solar house the Solatrium, for its power source and main architectural feature, an atrium.

A major goal of this competition is to show consumers how to save money and energy with affordable, clean energy products that are available today. The competition also provides participating students with hands-on experience and unique training that prepares them to enter the clean energy workforce. The teams were judged on 10 criteria: architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance.

Team BEMANY placed first in the hot water and energy balance contests, and placed fourth in the communications criteria.

Team BEMANY was required to host members from other teams for a "movie night" and two dinner parties, and to wash a load of laundry during the competition. Judges monitored the amount of energy the Solatrium drew from the "Solar Village" grid and how much it put back into the grid during the competition. The goal was to be energy neutral, producing enough energy from the 42 roof-mounted photovoltaic panels — producing 30.2 kilowatt hours per day — to operate the house.

The Solatrium was the only solar house built in the U.S. and transported to China for reconstruction. All other U.S., and most of the international teams, built their houses in China with local partner universities. The Solatrium had close to 3,000 visitors each day that it was open to the public. Some visitors waited in line for hours to view the house and enjoy its unique architecture and open living space.

Features of the Solatrium include glass windows coated with a glaze that moderates light and radiation levels, an airy, sun-filled atrium to provide passive lighting and ventilation, and lightweight, composite wall panels with an insulation core, providing both structural integrity and a thermal barrier.

Over the course of the 2012–13 academic year, WPI students worked on the project and learned more about energy efficient and sustainable construction methods. Students in WPI’s new Architectural Engineering program designed most aspects of the solar house, including architectural design, structural design, mechanical and electrical systems, and energy modeling, using Building Information Modeling to integrate design, construction, and project management. The WPI members were responsible for architectural engineering, electrical engineering, fire safety engineering and testing, structural design, and construction.

The NYU Poly team was responsible for materials design, testing, and production, as well as construction. The students designed and produced 350 floor tiles for the Solatrium to help keep the interior temperature stable. The tiles are a mix of cement and phase-changing materials that absorb heat when the temperature rises above 73 degrees Fahrenheit, and release heat when the temperature drops below that point. That innovation was expected to reduce demand on the heating and cooling system, lowering energy use by up to 40 percent.

The Belgian team was responsible for architectural design, environmental analysis, structural engineering, code compliance, and construction.

After the design and testing of materials, the Solatrium was constructed near the WPI campus by faculty and students, with assistance from students at Worcester Technical High School. It was then dismantled and shipped to China for reconstruction for the competition.

Since the launch of the Solar Decathlon in 2002, five competitions have been hosted in the U.S. and Europe. In 2013 the competition is being held in China for the first time, as part of the Sino-U.S. energy collaborative programs. The competition is organized in part by Peking University, but is being held in Datong.