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Cornell's new solar house goes round and round

The designers of Cornell's new solar house have gone outside the box for their entry in the 2009 Solar Decathlon, a biennial competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in October.

The house -- now taking shape at the High Voltage Lab (HVL) just off campus -- comprises three separate circular interior spaces that can be closed off to maximize heating and cooling efficiency or opened up to make one large space around a central courtyard.

The steel-framed "rustic chic" design will feature corrugated steel cladding on the house exterior, underground water tanks, a landscape of tall grasses and sedges and a system of hydroponic planter trays that will filter gray water into potable water.

"You're not going to see another house like this on the mall," said Christopher Werner, M.Arch. '09. "This is our third competition, and we were tired of doing boxes. We decided to do a whole new take on modularity."

Cornell's decathlon team placed second in the 2005 competition and 19th in 2007. Werner said Cornell responded to a proposal request just two weeks after the 2007 competition ended and was again selected to compete. An architecture design studio course followed, and decathlon team adviser Matt Ulinski led a Solar Lab engineering course to familiarize students with systems planned for the house. A wooden mockup was built at HVL to test some of the design features.

"This design is much more complex, but we have a very well-thought-out design plan," said Ulinski, director of the Hansen lab in mechanical and aerospace engineering.

The interdisciplinary team has been operating under budget constraints but will work through the summer without paid internships. About 40 students have committed to part-time volunteer work, and another 10-15 will work on the project full time, Werner said.

The team continues to conduct outreach efforts with local youth groups and has held fundraisers in New York City and Washington, D.C., he said.

The house will make its public debut in August at the New York State Fair in Syracuse, where the team will give tours and test the house's various systems before the competition.

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Blaine Friedlander