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Students build green-energy home for D.C. Solar Decathlon


Curio House (Photo by Gabrielle Levy)

MEDFORD - On Thursday, a team of student engineers and designers from Tufts University and the Boston Architectural College (BAC) celebrated the official opening of the Curio House, an entry into the US Department of Energy-sponsored Solar Decathlon competition.  Thursday's ribbon-cutting ceremony included brief addresses by involved faculty, including Vincent Manno, the Provost of the Tufts School of Engineering, Dr. Theodore Landsmark, President of the BAC, Sandy Taft, Director of U.S. climate change policy at National Grid, and Jeff Stein, Head of the School of Architecture at BAC, and tours of the house by "Team Boston" students. 

After nearly two years of planning, designing, and building, the net-zero energy home is ready to be disassembled for transportation from its construction site on Tufts' Medford, MA campus to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where the biennial contest for solar energy exploration will take place over three weeks in October.  The Curio House, a collaborative effort between students at both Boston-area institutions, with advice and mentoring by established industry experts and faculty, is run completely on solar power and constructed almost entirely from readily-available supply store staple products.  

 The contest, which aims to both educate future industry professionals and advance the entry of solar technologies into the current market, will judge the houses in ten categories, including architecture, market viability, living comfort, technical success, and communications - the teams' ability to effectively promote their ideas and design for commercial use.  A panel of experts will score the entries over an eight day period, and will take objective measurements of temperatures and energy readings several times over the course of the week.  Teams will also host dinners and movie nights, which will then be used to score the houses on comfort and aesthetics.  

 Team Boston designed and built a house that they say is intended to mimic the concept of pre-fabrication, but with increased economy and flexibility. The designers and architects planned and then implemented a modular design, assembling the Curio House in sections in order to ease its mobility for the Decathlon but also with an eye towards a commercial future.  At its core is an L-shaped module that centralizes most of the technologies and systems at one "heart", along with a feedback system intended to facilitate understanding between the inhabitants and their home.

 Curio House is entirely powered by solar panels called photovoltaic micro-inverters, which offer more flexibility than more commonly used centralized converters.  Along with its modular assembly and off-the-shelf materials, the choice of the individually-installed panels is yet another piece of the design intended to increase Curio's marketability.  

 "What we're doing with this project is working not just to save the environment and push a green initiative," explains Michael Sidebottom, a senior engineering student at Tufts, who has been involved with the project from its early planning stages in October 2007.  "We're also trying to educate the masses of people who have seen the house here at Tufts and who will see it in D.C.  The education is that everyone can make a difference to help save the planet as well as save themselves money in the process."

 The design for the interior of Curio House keeps a similar focus on flexibility, featuring moveable interior "walls" - more like screens - that can be reconfigured to maximize the usefulness of the small space.  Additionally, the exterior wall separating the living space from the deck is retractable, so that the entire space can be opened up during pleasant weather.   

 "We even engineered the design so that it could be assembled using forklifts, rather than cranes like most pre-fab houses use," says Sidebottom.  "Using forklifts is more environmentally conscious.  Also, it's just easier - and cheaper."

 Team Boston can head into the national event next month with some degree of confidence.  The design prioritized commercial feasibility rather than maximizing high energy output, so while the Curio House is unlikely to take home the prize for electricity production, its overall design remains competitive.

 "Our team brings a fresh perspective to the competition that will help us do well," Sidebottom says.  "With an eye towards accessibility and economy, rather than brute high-end technology, we hope to educate people rather than simply build a highly efficient, yet high priced house."

 Following the end of the Solar Decathlon, Curio House will return to Sandwich, MA, where it will become the first house in a new relocation and rehabilitation community geared towards sustainable living.   

More information about the Curio House and the 2009 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is available at