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Cornell's solar house ready for test run at state fair

The ramp is in place. So are the heating and air conditioning, the walls, floors, electricity, plumbing, and the photovoltaic panels and converters.

Cornell's 2009 Solar Decathlon house is almost ready for its public preview later this month at the Great New York State Fair, leading up to international competition in October.

"It's all finish work from now on," said Myra Wong, B.Eng. '10, engineering team leader. "All the electrical is in; the converters are in place; the drywall is all up. We still have to put whitewash paint on the walls and ceilings."

The house has taken shape over several months at Cornell's High Voltage Laboratory (HVL) on Mitchell Street near campus, with from 10 to 50 team members working long seven-day weeks over the summer to complete construction. A contingent of CUSD team alumni from 2005 and 2007 have returned to help prepare and wrap the house for transport Aug. 17 to the state fairgrounds near Syracuse, where the public will get their first glimpse of the finished house.

"We've had alumni just come and go all summer," Wong said.

The house will be on display and open for daily tours at the fair, which runs from Aug. 27 through Labor Day, Sept. 7. Fairgoers can tour the house three times daily, including special evening tours for smaller groups.

The fair will be a dry run for the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, Oct. 9-18 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This will be Cornell's third entry in the biennial competition.

The timing of the fair "helps a lot," Wong said, surrounded by the activity of team members in the HVL work area. "It's a deadline that makes us work faster. It's also an opportunity to test the house, which we didn't do in 2007."

The house's features include engineered ash tongue-and-groove flooring, energy-saving appliances and systems including LED lighting; moisture-proof insulation in the walls; folding NanaWalls (also part of previous decathlon designs) opening to the central courtyard; and an array of 40 200-watt photovoltaic panels. The design also maximizes natural lighting.

Special interior design features will be in harmony with the house's "rustic chic" architecture, designed by Irina Chernyakova, B.Arch. '10, who combined modern elements with traditional upstate New York architecture.

With its three cylindrical living modules -- living room, kitchen and bedroom/bathroom -- covered in corrugated steel, the Cornell team's 2009 effort is dubbed "the silo house," and the design is likely to stand out at the fairgrounds and on the Mall. A long ramp on the structure's north side will be landscaped with thousands of plants.

Cornell placed second out of 20 teams in the 2005 Solar Decathlon and 19th in 2007. The Department of Energy-sponsored competition judges and ranks the entries from 20 teams in 10 different categories, from architecture and energy efficiency to market viability. Houses can be no more than 800 square feet and have to produce enough energy to function as a stand-alone residence and power a small electric car.

The 2009 Solar Decathlon team comprises 150 students from six Cornell colleges and the Johnson School, divided into teams focused on architecture, business, communications, construction, engineering and landscape. Their efforts are supported by faculty, staff and alumni.

"A lot of us are returning team members," said Wong, who was on the 2007 CUSD team. "We're taking our experience from 2007 and learning from what we did."

Gideon Stone, construction manager in 2007, was back on the job this week.

"Compared to the last one, we're a lot further along in the construction process, and a lot more is detailed out," Stone said. "We're really kind of pushing the envelope more with this one. With the circular design, they've had a lot of challenges working with materials. It seems like they put a lot more time into it on the front end, getting the drawings together -- and it's paid off.

"It looks like they've learned a lot from the trials and tribulations of the last time around, and I think they have a good reason to be excited about going down there and placing really well," Stone said.

The house is also for sale, and offers are being accepted by interested purchasers. Details are on the CUSD team Web site at http://www.cusd.cornell.edu/. The house contains more than $425,000 in materials, and an estimated $200,000 in labor and $100,000 in design and professional services also went into its construction.

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Blaine Friedlander