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It's Not Easy Being Green

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

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

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

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


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.