Yale Solar Decathlon Entry Scrambles to the Finish

by Eric Ellman

If you want fame as an architect, design singular monuments like a bridge or a museum. If you want to change the world, build a better modular home. About a year and a half ago, twelve Yale undergraduates chose the latter path, developing a design for an 800-square-foot house for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. The final event of the 2015 competition – the display of the homes to the general public and their judging according to ten metrics by panels of experts – will take place this October in Irvine, California, 3000 miles from New Haven.

As the summer winds down, the Yale Solar Decathlon Team is preparing to assemble the mechanical core of its entry, called Y-House, at Yale West Campus, and is in a dash to the finish line to raise the remaining funds to pay a West Coast modular home builder to fabricate the rest of the structure that the core will be fitted to.

The cost – and irony – of demonstrating sustainability with something built on one side of the country, and then trucked across it for display, led to the decision to go modular with a West Coast manufacturer, something that the students admit was not in their original plan.

“Like everyone one else, we started out thinking ‘design-build’ on campus,” says Thaddeus Lee, a 23-year old architecture major who is the team’s construction manger. But the students quickly decided that such a traditional approach did not make sense, not for this contest, nor as a model for the world.

According to the Department of Energy, creating, heating and lighting the shelters we live in accounts for nearly one third of U.S. energy use. The design of Y-House targets a sliver of that market, young professionals and graduate students with the shared values and need for community that make them candidates for living close to one another in smaller ultra-efficient housing.

But while many construction companies can produce the sort of tightly sealed, energy-efficient units that might be suitable for a hip 21st century community, their approaches to construction rely on conventional technologies to condition air and water, and conventional space for housing that equipment. To make a net-zero energy structure within the tight, 800-sq-ft confines of Y-House, students worked with Eli Gould ’94, the founder of Ironwood Brand and a trend-setter in high-performance housing for over 20 years, on a novel design for the standalone core unit they will help build at Yale West Campus this week. The unit incorporates cutting edge components not usually found on modular assembly lines: an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to steal heat from air as it enters and exits the tightly sealed envelope, a heat pump that can warm or cool, a “mini-splitter” to isolate zones where energy is needed, and a photovoltaic system to distribute electricity from the solar panels mounted on the roof of a an expansive deck that frames the front of the house.

The size of a small U-haul trailer, the mechanical core of Y-House functions as both brain and heart of the house: sensors monitor interior conditions from temperature and humidity to carbon-monoxide levels and particulate concentrations, then direct air and energy to adjust them as needed. Gould, who was one of the first dual majors in architecture at environmental studies at Yale, believes that Y-House can win the Decathlon events related to energy efficiency, and could win overall. If the team can get to Irvine in October.

That outcome is still in doubt. The DOE grant awarded to Yale in April of last year has supported the design and planning of Y-House. Since the start of the year, the Yale team has been reaching out to the wider Yale community to raise the $150,000 that it will take to actually build Y-House, as well as for the funds (about another $150,000) that will be necessary to install it in Orange Country Great Park in October, and to make provisions for its installation at a permanent site. (The plans are that, after Irvine, Y-House will go North Carolina to become one of the buildings for a new art foundation being set up in Randolph County by a group of Yale alumni.)

The team is within about $100,000 of their fund-raising goal. With the clock ticking, team members and project supporters like Eli Gould are calling every potential sponsor they know.


For more information, or to lend support, contact:

Pablo Ponce de Leon
Co-Project Manager

Katherine McMillan
Co-Project Manager