NYU-Poly Team Heads to Solar Decathlon

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, launched in 2002, is an award-winning program that challenges collegiate teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive. This year, for the first time, the biennial event will be held in China, and students from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly) will be there.

The language of the memorandum that launched the 2013 competition is formal. It reads, in part, “The Governments of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China have a common goal in fostering sustainable economic and social development while encouraging the use of renewable energy sources and recognize that solar energy development and use is an important part of their collaboration.”

There is little indication there that the student competitors would soon be operating industrial mixers and hauling heavy concrete tiles. But that’s exactly what was in store for the NYU-Poly team, who partnered with students from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Universiteit Ghent in Belgium to design and build the Solatrium, a nearly 1,500-square-foot, net-zero house made up of 12-kilowatt photovoltaic solar panels and composite materials that they will reassemble in August in the Chinese city of Datong.

The team, known by the acronym BEMANY (for Belgium, Massachusetts, and New York) conceived of a practical, comfortable, and welcoming home in an atrium style that reduces the need for artificial light and power. They employed several high-tech materials in the three-bedroom dwelling, including floor tiles made of phase-changing concrete that hold, then release heat when temperatures drop. (They developed the tiles with the help of NYU-Poly Professor Weihua Jin, an expert in sustainable cement-based materials.) Team leader Evan Wilke explained, “If you can cool a home so that the air conditioning can be run for even an hour less a day, imagine the collective savings over time.”

Wilke, a former Peace Corps volunteer, is especially proud that his team was able to do the hard physical labor required by the project. “The tiles weigh 62 pounds each,” he said. “We made more than 340 of them, creating the molds by hand and using an industrial mixer. All together, we went through 15,000 pounds of material, and we carried it all ourselves; there wasn’t even a loading dock in our building.”

The students traveled to Worcester to assemble the Solatrium on a trial basis before disassembling it and shipping the pieces by freighter to China, where they are expected to arrive by the middle of July. After that, the house will be reconstructed for the competition, which starts on August 3.

There, the Solatrium will be judged on the basis of 10 factors, including architecture; affordability; and engineering, a category that includes functionality, efficiency, innovation, and reliability. “With NYU-Poly involved, we are sure to ace the engineering competition,” Wilke predicts.

In addition to Wilke, the NYU-Poly team includes Javed Narain, Jingyi Tang, Demetrio Criscuolo, Stan Voykov and Rebecca Eaker. They have had much appreciated help from corporate sponsor BASF and from their advisor, Professor Masoud Ghandehari.