Enter the sun house

It's what happens when vision, technology and the principles of renewable energy meet for a common goal. It's what happens when eager young minds roll up their sleeves and trade textbooks for power tools and blueprints.

The result is a home-building competition called the Solar Decathlon, an event sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy that realistically can influence residential construction practices, making our homes more energy efficient and reducing the global dependency on oil.

"You know, it is all of those," says Dan Rapka, 35, a graduate student in energy management at New York Institute of Technology's Old Westbury campus. "Certainly, the project is a focus on energy, a push for new ideas and concepts. Plus, on the residential scale, it's part of what hopefully can happen in the industry."

NYIT is one of 20 universities from 13 states and three countries entered in the Solar Decathlon, which from Oct. 12 to 20 will display zero-energy homes built by students from schools of architecture, engineering, interior design, marketing, business and even culinary arts at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

These solar homes - classified as zero-energy structures because they generate their own electricity to provide all the power for a modern household - are limited to 800 square feet in size and will operate in a "solar village" during the competition. They will be judged in 10 categories, ranging from architecture, to comfort to energy efficiency, hence the event's use of decathlon in the title.

NYIT's entry, called OPEN House, will be unveiled officially tomorrow at the Old Westbury campus before it is disassembled, transported south on I-95, and then reassembled for the competition. More than 75 students have worked on the project, with contributions made by OPEN House's major sponsors - the Long Island Power Authority; T.M. Bier & Associates, a Glen Cove engineering firm that specializes in controls for heating, cooling and ventilation systems; Built Well Solar Corp., a Wantagh solar-energy installer; and NanaWall Systems, a California-based manufacturer of glass-wall construction - as well as dozens of smaller, local sponsors.

NYIT's entry in 2005, called Green Machine/Blue Space, finished fifth overall in the Solar Decathlon, which began in 2002 as a way to showcase more energy-efficient residential structures. Beginning this year, the Solar Decathlon will be held every two years. More than 30 schools applied for this year's event.

Each of the 20 approved entries is awarded $100,000 by the DOE for project costs. Additional funding comes from private and corporate sponsorships, grants and local donations. Construction on NYIT's 2007 project began in June and is expected to run between $220,000 and $250,000.

OPEN House is aptly named. The rectangular structure's rear wall is a series of sliding doors and full-length windows. The building's design is solar passive, which means the "open" rear wall has a southerly exposure and allows the sun to both illuminate and heat a large portion of living space. This design means less energy is spent on lighting and heating the interior. In warm-weather months, a strategically placed overhang keeps the living area from being overheated by the sun.

When NYIT's Matt Mathosian, the project's architectural team leader, hears that OPEN House would make a great pool house or beach house, he laughs heartily. "Everyone says that," Mathosian, 27, a third-year architecture student from East Setauket, says. "They picture this back wall of windows and doors wide open, taking in fresh ocean breezes and warm sun, so I guess they might be right."

Rapka, the project's energy team leader from Westbury, says others have told him that OPEN House also could serve as the perfect mountain retreat. "You wake up in the morning, look out the windows and there's your view," he says with a wave of his right arm.

The view is only part of the appeal. OPEN House also offers a huge dose of high-tech engineering, renewable energy applications and sustainable building products. The structure has a small pond with a waterfall on its roof that mimics a geothermal heating and cooling system.

Also on the aluminum-clad rooftop is a 7.5 kW photovoltaic system, 34 solar panels that transform sunlight into electricity. When the sun isn't shining, the structure can feed on solar-generated electricity stored in battery cells.

Indoors, the kitchen unit has a full set of Energy Star appliances, including dishwasher and Sub-Zero refrigerator. The major living area features cherry plank flooring; cherry is a sustainable hardwood, easy to replenish in forests. Plus, the project features "smart-home" technology, an automation system that controls windows, lighting, temperature and appliances.

Some of the structure is based on good, old-fashioned building practices, with a tweak or two. For example, OPEN House has walls made from traditional framing lumber. But the walls have been insulated with spray foam instead of fiberglass batts. Student project manager Matt Vecchione, 22, a third-year architecture student from Levittown, who also worked on NYIT's 2005 entry, says the foam insulation - which uses Honeywell's Enovate blowing agent and was installed by NewYorkSpray Foam.com of Westhampton - is three times more expensive than fiberglass.

"But this type of insulation, because it eliminates air leaks, increases R-value," Vecchione says. "It reduces heating and cooling bills by as much as 30 percent, and payback on such an investment is about five years."

Plus, the spray-on foam is considered environmentally friendly.

Unlike OPEN House, a simple rectangle, many homes in the National Mall's solar village might appear odd in shape, size or, frequently, mechanical operations. That's because the structures have to travel great distances, some across oceans, and must be easy to disassemble and reassemble. But Vecchione says the idea is to look a little deeper when evaluating the different buildings. One of the goals, he says, is to educate the public, both the homeowner and the home-builder.

"There are a lot of concepts in these homes, like solar photovoltaics, foam insulation and geothermal heating and cooling, that are practical and can be applied to today's homes," he says. "And these systems save money by reducing energy."


The New York Institute of Technology's 2005 entry in the Solar Decathlon, Green Machine/Blue Space, is in full operation at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point. The building, donated by NYIT, is both a residence and office for Greg Sachs, manager of the academy's Alternative Power Program. Sachs, a professor at the academy, was lead engineer for the 2005 project and chief designer of the home's hydrogen-based energy-storage system. He also was an adviser on this year's OPEN House project. The fate of the 2007 home has yet to be determined. - GARY DYMSKI

OPEN House will be officially unveiled to the public tomorrow at NYIT's Old Westbury campus at 10 a.m. The building will be on display in the Midge Karr Fine Arts Design Center parking lot through Sept. 30 before it is disassembled and shipped to Washington, D.C. For more on the project, visit http://iris.nyit.edu/solardecathlon2007.