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2004-10-21

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It's Not Easy Being Green

BY NIAMH SLEVIN
Daily Weekend Editor
Published October 20, 2004

Saturday morning at 11 a.m., six students crowded into a small
studio space, tucked into the heart of the Art and Architecture
Building. While the majority of campus spent their weekends having
fun in the sun elsewhere, cramming their noggins with facts they
will soon forget or comfortably nestled in their beds, this handful
of future architects and engineers made their way through the rain
to participate in the design and creation of the University’s
first solar house, the MiSo house.

Laura Wong
Project Manager John Beeson spearheaded the original project back in the summer of 2002.
Laura Wong
The MiSo team works from a scaled down model to hammer out their concept.
Laura Wong
Graduate students Suzanne Robinson and Maria Ruedinger continue to add to the MiSo house.

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A brief history

Back in the summer of 2002, John Beeson, then a young graduate
student, heard about a national design competition promoting
sustainable solar architecture. After sending his sister, a
Washington Post reporter, to the National Mall in Washington for
pictures of the Solar Decathlon 2002, Beeson approached the chair
of the architecture department wondering why the University was not
involved in this cutting-edge technology. Soon, the college had
assembled a faculty team to help put together an initial proposal,
which they sent to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the
host and organizer of the Solar Decathlon. And thus, MiSo, or the
Michigan Solar House project, was born.

From there, the college implemented a graduate seminar in the
fall of 2003, where students could analyze previous entries into
the competition and determine what had worked well. The students
then started research on solar design, transportation, flexibility,
materials and solar building production. At the end of the
semester, they published the MiSo manual, a book which would then
guide future research and construction.

With Beeson as project manager, the college officially kicked
off the design process last winter with a graduate option studio
devoted solely to the MiSo project. In April, the studio’s
end project, the first prototype, was submitted to the NREL for its
first deadline and followed up every three to six months with
further submissions. With a 60-page report in hand that analyzed
numerous energy simulations, the group began its first major
redesign. A mezzanine located on the top of the prototype had to be
eliminated because it was too much of a liability. In the words of
Jim Kumon, spokesperson for MiSo, it was a huge smokestack.

The original concept for the solar panels was that they would be
rotating to catch the most sunlight. Unfortunately,
Michigan’s unpredictable weather couldn’t offer the
solar potential to make these type of panels cost-effective. The
model had to be reshaped to allow for a more curvilinear L-shape,
and the structure had to be made taller to best capitalize on air
circulation.

With the corrected model in place, the design and management
teams started the physical construction. A portion of the
800-square-foot life-sized model currently stands behind the
architecture building, where the group can experiment and determine
where they will run into problems.

 

Mixing academics with the extracurricular

In March 2004, MiSo instituted a management team to help guide
the project and coordinate the academic and extracurricular
components of it. Ten managers were responsible for organizing
about 60 students enrolled in the curriculum, 25 to 30
extracurricular volunteers and a range of community professionals
and faculty offering design, manufacturing and material advice.
Five departments oversee the parts of the project that did not have
an academic component, such as the finances, material donations and
deadlines.

Now, the academic aspect has grown to include several colleges
around the University. There are graduate landscape architecture
classes, mechanical engineering classes, simulations courses run
with the environmental technology faculty and a group of students
within the business school, who concentrate on marketing
analysis.

But, even with the additional classes, MiSo relies on its
volunteer staff to help further the project. According to Kumon,
one of the management team’s main priorities is “to
recruit people from the outside the curricular realm, especially
because architecture students can’t solve all of the
problems.”

 

The decathlon

The decathlon itself presents a challenge for the team. They
have four days to recreate their building in the National Mall and
have to submit a timeline for what they will be doing every 15
minutes of the competition. Across from the Smithsonian Castle,
they anticipate working around the clock the first few nights to
unload the pieces of the house off of the trucks and quickly
reassembling it. Washington’s ordinances don’t make it
any easier for them either: Trucks over a certain length can only
enter the Mall between midnight and 6 a.m.

While the MiSo team does hope to place as one of the top five
competitors at the decathlon, one of its primary goals is
education. “We believe there is a higher educational value in
what we’re doing, reaching out to student groups that are
being affected. Now that we have over 100 people involved,
it’s getting a little interesting to manage, but at the same
time, so many people can be engaged with the project,” Kumon
says.

“The reality of the project is valid — not only do
we want to win for a competition but as future architects,
designers, engineers and businessmen we want to influence the
livability of the future. As students we want to spread awareness
of sustainability issues and demonstrate the practicality of
sustainable design,” adds Melissa Marks, a senior in this
semester’s design studio. “It thrives on understanding
the needs (and wants) of the individual, the community, the
economy, and the environment. The process of learning how to
address such issues and resolve them will never be finalized
— the value is in continually trying to learn, understand and
analyze.”

 

Finance

Though green architecture may prove to be cost-effective in the
future, the team is quickly learning that its research and test
stages do not come cheap. The estimated cost of the entire project
will amount to about $600,000 — $48,000 of which will be
spent on prototyping. The College of Architecuture and Urban
Planning has provided the team with a set amount of support, and it
also hopes to get grants and in-kind donations from local
manufacturers.

Kumon and Beeson say they plan to attend this year’s
United States Green Building conference in a couple of weeks and
hope to get some material suppliers there. They expect about 400
people to be on the expo floor, but they’ve focused their
efforts into creating personalized packets addressed to 50
companies to present their case. Yet, the extra effort is worth it
if the project pays off.

“The College of Architecture and Urban Planning has taken
a renewed interest in sustainability in the last couple of years,
and we really think that … having this as a cornerstone for
development and for relations, we can get money to support these
programs. We think we’ll have a very strong basis for the
future to help the college in making its case to donors to fund
it,” Kumon says. “That’s actually one of the five
major initiatives within the college right now from a development
standpoint — is to get sustainable initiatives going. This
project has been a real shot in the arm for that.”

 

Breaking down barriers

While solar housing certainly has its advantages, the MiSo team
has discovered its share of complications as well. For the most
part, the biggest challenge has been to break down the
misconceptions associated with solar design. One misconception is
that solar housing is not inherently as aesthetically pleasing as
conventional housing.

“It’s definitely a challenge to the way we think
about where we live. We’ve been kind of programmed into
thinking that bigger is better, but I find bigger just means you
have more space to hide more junk that you’re probably not
going to use. It goes beyond just housing, but how do we use things
and what is the life cycle of our materials,” Kumon explains.
“Saying that we can live with all the comforts, all the
technology, all our sort of habits right now might need to be
adjusted, but can still be very much accommodated by (this)
system.”

Beeson added, “Solar housing is easy. We just design
without it because conventional construction is stupidly
easy.”

Upon startup, the cost of the system may seem a little
off-putting to some. Marks explains in an e-mail: “The
upfront cost of building such a home is fairly large due to the
cost of materials needed to produce an energy efficient house,
however, the amount of energy saved in the long-run will greatly
decrease energy bills in the future and as a result, the homeowner
will spend less money by implementing energy efficient techniques
to his/ her home or office.”

They cite maintenance and up-front costs as two real concerns
with solar housing right now, but they also argue that steps are
being made to minimize these problems. For example, most solar
panels have a life span of roughly 20 years, but the repairs can be
minimized with the right amount of care. And, 20 years is actually
a longer lifespan than some conventional building materials.

 

The After-life

Regardless of what happens at the decathlon, the team
appreciates this one-of-a-kind opportunity to interact with
hands-on sustainable design.

“Personally, I’ll never be the same. Involvement in
the project will launch you to a whole new level of understanding
and leadership. What will come out of this project is a huge matrix
of knowledge, learning, leadership and student/professor
development, and green architecture is a by-product. Green design
is understood as a given in this project, what makes it so powerful
is how the decathlon has forced programs to reach out to other
departments, local communities and vast numbers of students from
every discipline to get this project into a reality,” Beeson
explains.

Kumon concurred, saying, “We learn a lot of things in
school about how to design and material choice and how the space
looks, making pretty pictures, but we hardly ever get to the point
where we have to make decisions based on cost, based on
performance, based on looks, based on who the manufacturer is and
the relationship you have with them.

"It’s a different level of architecture. It’s a very
real world ... the biggest motivation in this project is to be part
of something that actually comes to fruition. It’s not just a
still floor plan on a wall. It really does come
together.”