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“Storm Rugged” Solar House is Designed for Post-Weather Survival

This storm-resistant coastal housing serves as an energy hub during emergencies.

THE SOLAR DECATHLON, a biennial event sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is a good place to look for inspiration and innovation. The inaugural Solar Decathlon was 2002 on the National Mall; the latest and seventh competition was held in Irvine, Calif. this past October.
This was Stevens Institute of Technology’s third Solar Decathlon competition. This year, the team took the legacy of Hurricane Sandy into account, asking, “How can we design a home that both reduces energy use and adapts to the realities of a changing more extreme climate?”

The team’s winning answer is the SURE (SUstainable and REsilient) HOUSE, a high­-performance solar-­powered house, not only armored to take weather extremes but prepared with a source of emergency power in the aftermath of a storm.

The two­-bedroom SURE HOUSE is 999 square feet. In style, it is a mid­century modern beach house, but it sips energy à la the 21st century and is storm ready.

SURE HOUSE features what the Stevens Institute team describes as a “storm-­rugged PV system” that not only continues to supply power when the grid is down, but can also help neighbors. The array is designed to safely allow a small amount of “islanded”—that is, cut off from the main grid—energy generation during a power outage, without any batteries at all. Part of this energy is directed to a hub outside of the house, allowing neighbors to charge their electronic devices via exterior USBs.

A separate building-integrated PV array is integrated into lightweight fiber-composite shutters that shade the home’s southern façade. The solar modules are flexible and thin, using plastic polymer instead of the traditional “heavy glass sandwich layers.” The light weight makes it easy for homeowners to easily raise and lower the storm shutters.

When lowered, the solar shutter system locks into place using a series of latches and watertight EPDM seals. The fiber-composite material consists of “a sophisticated matrix of reinforcement fibers:” glass, carbon and even bio­fibers such as flax combined with plastic binders. The material is high strength, low weight and durable enough to survive fierce storms.

The domestic hot water system was also designed for resilience. The BIPV array delivers DC power to the control unit and heating element, which means it functions without an inverter or the need to be tied into the power grid. An integrated heat pump is triggered when there’s not enough direct solar energy to keep the water temperature above the set point. Even in “heat pump mode,” this system is 70 percent more efficient than a conventional electric water heater.

With its tight envelope, thick insulation and heat recovery ventilation, SURE HOUSE exceeds Passive House standards for energy use and can be physically raised to avoid what the team described as “periodic nuisance flooding.” The combination of the shutters and a louver system helps to keep out both the high summer sun and lower-angle sunlight, which can also raise indoor temperatures.

SURE HOUSE not only won first place overall, it was also the clear winner in market acceptance, one of 10 juried categories.

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