FIU-Tsinghua team develop solar powered house for decathlon

Yanaisis Collazo/Staff Writer

The Solar Decathlon is about more than just building efficient solar houses for a mere competition; it educates students and the public on a new, comfortable, eco-friendly, money-saving opportunity. According to, it is demonstrating to the public the comfort and affordability of homes that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems available today.

The 2013 Solar Decathlon China, held Aug. 2 through Aug. 10 in Datong, China, hosted 20 teams from around the world, including FIU who teamed up with Tsinghua University, to challenge themselves in designing and constructing energy-efficient, solar-powered houses. The steps the FIU-Tsinghua University team took began with careful research of the best available solar and environmental systems technology.

“Armed with that knowledge, we entered extensive discussions with manufacturers, suppliers, and builders,” said Marilys Nepomechie, professor of architecture at FIU. “Additionally, original research based on extensive in-house experimentation, fueled the team’s work.“We were fortunate to find tremendous institutional and community support, interest and goodwill to advance the team’s efforts.”

The Decathlon consisted of 10 competitions: five of them measured through instrumentation and five through a jury of panel experts. The team earned top honors in four of the five measured contests and placed first in Comfort Zone among the other teams. “The Comfort Zone competition measures combined temperature and humidity levels inside the house.

The O-House was well positioned to control both – through excellent environmental systems controlled by sensors, weather station, real time monitoring and instrumentation,” said Nepomechie. “Furthermore, the house was designed with a well-calibrated building envelope – including insulation, ventilation, shading elements, among other project features,” said Nepomechie.

Although both universities are diverse in language and cultural differences, they still managed to work well together for the last two years and become a strong, unified team. “There is no doubt that the multidisciplinary and multicultural teamwork experience will have positive impacts on students’ lives and careers,” said Cheng-Xian “Charlie” Lin, associate professor in the department of mechanical and materials engineering.

Over the course of the competition, FIU faculty and students made three in-person visits to Beijing and Datong, while one of the Tsinghua faculty members visited FIU last spring. Aside from those interactions, the team did long-distance project reviews and critiques via Skype, Dropbox and email. Because FIU-Tsinghua University won fifth place in this year’s competition, the team has developed new methods, ideas and opinions to finish next year’s competition at a higher position. “If there is anything we can do better next time, I think it will be how to ‘show and tell’ the solar house designed by the students to the judging experts,” said Lin. “Our team has done a great job in building and showing the house. At the same time, we feel that making every student understand the competition rules or where points are is always important during the competition.”

The team is satisfied with the results and the hard work they have put for the last two years. According to Nepomechie, the process of selecting 20 finalists in an international competition that draws hundreds of applicants every cycle includes researching, designing, building, transporting and operating a full-scale solar house. Accomplishing this is already a victory for everyone involved.

“The decathlon is a profoundly challenging, rewarding, life-changing project for students,” according to Nepomechie. “I think I speak for all of us in saying that we are more than satisfied. Without a doubt, everyone contributed to the common task with enthusiasm. In our own case, the Solar Decathlon projects have also sought to incorporate challenges unique to our specific geographic and cultural contexts,” said Nepomechie. “In 2013, our team took on the complexities of bringing solar technologies to the high-rise, high-density context of China, while in 2011 our FIU team addressed our hot, humid, hurricane-prone South Florida climate as well as the growing demographics of an aging population.”

When asked if they will construct a solar house, meeting and working with new faces and the competition again, both professors agreed wholeheartedly with a “yes.”

“The SD China put FIU in an international stage. We are very proud to be one of the winning teams. I will be very excited to do it again,” said Lin. Nepomechie agreed. “The experience was invaluable on so many levels. Our project began as a conversation about important next steps in the evolution of this international intercollegiate competition and in the evolution of sustainable construction around the world. Who could ask for more?”

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