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By Eric Sean Weld   Date: 4/24/09 Bookmark and Share

It's Warm Inside but Nobody's Home

Knock all you want, but nobody will answer. No one lives in this house.

Installation of a solar house: Watch a video

Students haul insulated walls onto Burton Lawn in early April.

Before long, the house begins to take shape.

Inside, students install layers of denim insulation.

The completed house, warmed by the sun, gathers data daily.

The quaint structure sitting on Burton Lawn attractively painted with green clapboards and white trim is designed to yield information about how to make domiciles more energy efficient. Although from the exterior it looks inviting, the inside is an unfurnished functional shell not meant for occupation.

The house was built and installed by students in Physics 100, Solar Energy and Sustainability, taught by Nat Fortune, associate professor of physics. “One of my goals with this house is to provide my students with the capability to improve the performance of an existing home, or recommend efficiencies to others,” said Fortune.

In addition to learning about “green” building techniques, Fortune’s students learned practical skills as they assisted in the construction of the house in the McConnell Hall basement Center for Design and Fabrication, wielding power tools, finishing walls, and installing windows and insulation.

But the focus of the project is the house’s performance in absorbing and containing heat. As it absorbs the sun’s warmth, the “solar house” is equipped with sensors for monitoring its interior temperature. The class, with Fortune’s guidance, is testing the efficiency of the house with different systems of insulation in order to determine where heat loss occurs.

Students first fitted the house with foam board around its walls. A layer of thick-padded insulation made from recycled denim blue jeans followed. (In practice, the recycled denim insulation is more effective than the traditional fiberglass insulation, said Fortune.)

Finally, exterior walls and concrete floor tiles were added and daily records of the interior temperature fluctuations began, comparing the performance of the insulation and thermal mass with expectations. Fortune plans to maintain a log of energy statistics through the end of the spring semester, when the class will disassemble the house and return it to storage.

So far, the house has held heat well, Fortune reports, remaining at a comfortable 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit even as outdoor temperatures have varied between 80 degrees and freezing.

“I want my students to see this house as it improves its performance throughout the stages of insulation,” he said. Based on what they discover, Fortune’s students will be able to assess the heating and insulation in their own homes, and bring their knowledge with them to future domiciles.

“This is very applicable knowledge,” said Miranda Mickiewicz ’10. “We’re learning how much energy it takes to heat water for a shower, for example, and how to heat effectively with solar energy.”

For their final project, students designed a solar heating system for a house from their hometown, in which they determined the proper size of solar panels and thermal water systems.

“This class also shows us the benefits of small measures, like switching the setting on your laptop to sleep mode, replacing shower heads, and what size heating systems work best,” said Ayla Schlosser ’09. “The knowledge we get in this class is geared towards the individual, so that each of us can take it with us and apply it in the future.”

Meanwhile, the little house on Burton Lawn, heated for longer periods by the sun each day, continues gathering data that will lend insight to solar energy systems.

Though the house will come down in May, Fortune plans to use it again for future classes, he said. “I’d love to have a house outside year-round—to be able to test during winter months, too.”


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