By Lola Alapo
Living Light, UT’s solar-powered home, is a marriage of the past and the present.
It’s also a model for the future.
The 750-square-foot house is reminiscent of the region’s cantilever barns of yesteryear—from its overhang to the two wooden support cores.
It integrates modern technologies that enable the “zero-energy” house to produce more power than it consumes.
As a result, future builders and homeowners who incorporate similar technologies could use the surplus energy generated to run an electric vehicle charging system. They also could sell the power back to the grid.
The two-year Living Light project involved more than 200 students and twenty-four faculty members from nine academic disciplines to plan, design, and build the structure that would compete in the US Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon. Living Light captured third in engineering, fifth in architecture, and third in the use of energy-efficient appliances. The UT team also tied for first place in the cornerstone area of the competition, the Energy Balance Contest, and wound up placing eighth overall out of the twenty teams invited to compete.
“We were proud of our outcome in DC,” says Professor Edgar Stach, one of the primary leaders of the project. “The high caliber of our faculty and the enthusiasm and dedication of our students allowed us to excel in several of the individual events, placing in the top five in five categories. They took the project from conception to implementation and devised new methodologies for energy-efficient construction and design.”
The Challenges of a Glass House
Project architect Megan Chafin says one of the challenges was to design an energy-efficient glass house. Typically, energy-efficient homes are built with thick walls and few windows.
“We wanted a home that had a lot of natural light and a lot of views to the outside,” Chafin says.
To accomplish this goal, the Living Light team created a double façade system that makes the home’s windows part of its heating and cooling mechanism. The system is composed of a single pane of glass on the outside and insulated, suspended film glass on the inside. Between the layers is an air space.
In the winter, air within the cavity is preheated by the sun on the south side. The warmed air is brought inside the home and then exhausted on the north façade where there usually is heat loss. The system is then reversed in the summer so the house pulls air from the relatively cooler north side and exhausts it out of the south side.
For Living Light’s solar panels, which are positioned over the roof, the team used cylindrical glass tubes that have a thin, photovoltaic film wrapped 360 degrees inside.
“We used off-the-shelf products and made them into new configurations,” project manager Amy Howard says. “We were striving for new ways to become energy-efficient.”
Typical flat plate solar panels are set at a specific angle and capture direct sunlight during the peak time of the day. Using the cylindrical tubes allows Living Light to capture direct sunlight throughout the day, no matter where the sun is in the sky. It also captures reflected and diffused sunlight. All this produces more power over the course of the day.
A Touch to Change the Mood
Another of the house’s unique features is an intuitive touch pad interface, which controls everything from the blinds and mechanical system to the television and lighting. The touch pad is preset with different “moods.”
“When you leave your house, you can push the ‘day mood’ so everything can change at once,” Chafin says. “Your temperature will be set, and your blinds will all be set the way you want them while you’re away from the home.”
Plus, it has a fun UT mood, “where the orange and white checkerboard lights flash on the floor,” Chafin says.
The interface is able to monitor all the house’s appliances and energy consumption and production. Project engineer Steven Coley says incorporating a similar system into homes can show families how much money they’re spending on laundry, heating, cooling, and cooking, which “can help us start making informed decisions about energy usage.”
The house will continue to be a vehicle for learning as it embarks on a multi-city tour of Tennessee this year.
“We are using the Living Light house as way to directly demonstrate to Tennesseans how to build or retrofit
buildings to create sustainable buildings that create energy savings,” says Stach.
Take a Virtual Tour
Watch the video below to learn more about the architectural and technological features of the Living Light structure. You can also visit the project website at http://livinglightutk.com for additional details and tour schedules.