Ideas brought to life with new solar house

By Reem Ghaleb

Team Alberta has built a solar house named Borealis for the biannual Solar Decathlon competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition will take place in Irvine, California from Oct 3–13 where judges will critique the construction and design of solar houses built by 20 international teams.

“It has been two years in the making,” said recent University of Calgary masters of architecture graduate and lead Borealis architect Neal Philipsen. “The majority of the design was in the summer of 2012. The U of C’s department of environmental design had a course for the design of the home, so we really laid down the concepts and collaborated with the engineering students who started constructing and finalizing it into a working system.”

Canadian teams from Alberta and Ontario will compete in this year’s Solar Decathlon with students from Mount Royal University and the U of C forming Team Alberta. Two European teams from Austria and the Czech Republic and 16 American teams have also built solar houses for the competition.

Team Alberta competed twice before, placing sixth with Sol Abode in 2009 and tenth in 2011.

The estimated cost to build the Borealis house is between $307, 000–$315,000. The house is intended for workers in the mining, forestry and energy industries and for environmental reclamation projects.

According to Philipsen, companies could buy large numbers of their homes to house their employees who work in remote areas.

“Each module is about 300 square feet that [together] make up a 900 square foot home,” Philipsen said. “The two white side modules are the living modules that can be thought of as apartments for one individual. There is a bedroom and living room that is mirrored on the other side. All our appliances and the majority of our connections of different mechanical systems are contained in that one module and then the other two modules also plug into it on the sides.”

The Borealis solar house has twice the insulation value of a standard home, keeping the house at a consistent temperature during extreme weather and reducing the energy needed for temperature control. The Borealis also has 40 solar panels on the roof to supply electricity and evacuated solar thermal collectors for hot water.

“The solar panels are tied to the municipal power grid,” said recent civil engineering graduate and engineering lead Adam Cripps. “Any extra power that you don’t use immediately goes back to the grid and you get credit for what you give back and so at the end of the month, your bill has your use minus your credits.”

The house also features occupancy sensors — which turn the lights off when no one is present in the room — LED lighting, a cross ventilation system, an induction cooktop, energy-efficient appliances and a low-flow bathroom. The backsplash in the kitchen is made from the only 100 per cent recycled glass tile available on the market. And the kitchen table is made from the structural fir beams from the demolished Calgary Herald building in downtown Calgary.

Philipsen said the layout and furnishing of the Borealis house accommodate and reflect the needs of its target demographic. The sliding doors that separate the modules can be closed to provide privacy in the living modules for the two working professionals or opened to create a shared living space.

“The furniture is reconfigurable depending on your needs,” Philipsen said. “We have a table at a coffee table height and a couch and TV and a couple chairs in one of the living modules. In the other module, this table is able to rise to a desk height and then you use one of the chairs as an office chair and the TV screen as a second monitor.”

Cripps said he has been involved with the Borealis solar house since its beginning.

“You work on it for two years and then to finally see it all there, to build it, to be involved the whole way through is special just because you’ve spent so much time on it,” he said.

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