Energizing Education

Engineering students participate in solar house design competition

A solar powered house that's stylish and so energy efficient that a power bill never arrives in the mailbox? you don't need a subscription to Modern Architecture or Green Builder Magazine to find a design for one. Plans are available right here at UNM, thanks to a group of hardworking architecture and engineering students.

Last spring Olga Lavrova, assistant adjunct professor in electrical and computer engineering, was looking for an alternative to a traditional midterm exam for students in her Special Topics: Photovoltaics class. When she heard about a unique solar house design competition sponsored by the New Mexico Solar Energy Association (NMSEA), Lavrova knew it was a perfect fit. NMSEA, a non-profit that promotes renewable energy and sustainability, sponsors the competition for architecture students. This year, engineers decided to step up to the challenge and participate in the contest to help strengthen the entries.

Each of Lavrova's engineering students collaborated with one or more students from the UNM School of Architecture and Planning for the contest. More than 30 student teams submitted entries. Their challenge: design and develop architectural and engineering plans for a 1,500 sq. ft. New Mexico home. Solid architectural design and efficient use of passive and active solar energy were key criteria. Students also had to take into account cost effectiveness, quality of life, and options for future expansion.

Those were just the contest goals. Lavrova and the professors from the architecture school wanted the students to gain other experience too. "We thought it would be a good project for students from both schools because they can learn from each other," says Lavrova. "Projects like this are a great way to prepare our students for real life teamwork because they will be working in multidisciplinary settings and they must know how to work together and communicate."

A Pioneering Approach

Drew Johnson (ECE, 08) took Lavrova's photovoltaics course to complement his study of power systems. He chose to work with three different architecture students for the contest. His responsibilities for each entry included calculating how much energy the home would need, choosing the correct orientation for the house, designing the solar system, integrating it with architectural design, and calculating the cost of the system, taking into account any available energy credits.

"We acted like outside contractors," says Johnson. "We talked about what the architecture students wanted and how to accomplish their goals." It was no small task, especially when multiplied by three. Johnson took a comprehensive approach that didn't change dramatically among the three home designs he worked on.

However, one of the architecture students did challenge Johnson to think unconventionally. She wanted a solar-powered home that was so energy efficient that she'd never receive a power bill, and she didn't want to pay a dime to fuel her hybrid car either. It took some higher-level calculations, but Johnson's design did just that; using the sun to power both the home and the car. It was that kind of creative and comprehensive thinking that earned him the first place prize among the engineering students in the contest.

"Drew was really pioneering with his ability to charge the electric vehicle," says Lavrova. "His work was the most detailed and it had real life applications. He also took into account incentives from the utility company for homeowners," she adds.

Johnson says he gained much more than the $150 in prize money from the NMSEA contest. "This was a great experience," says Johnson. "We talked about solar power in class. But to design the system from scratch, calculate load requirements, and put it all into a practical design was excellent hands-on experience."