SUNsational

December 3, 2010 | CUNY Matters

A City College student team’s design for a solar roofpod made the finals of an international competition.

Now the real work begins.

When a team of architecture and engineering students at City College entered the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon contest last year, they knew their design for a fully solar-powered home would have to seize the imagination of judges who had probably seen them all.

City College students hope to win the 2011 Solar Decathlon with their qualifying design for a solar roofpod, aspects of which are shown here and below.

City College students hope to win the 2011 Solar Decathlon with their qualifying design for a solar roofpod, aspects of which are shown here and below.

To compete with universities from around the world, the CCNY students decided to stay close to home. They did what architects and builders usually do in New York: They looked up. Rather than designing yet another little solar house on the prairie, they wondered, what if they took advantage of the urban rooftop landscape and its relative proximity to the sun? What if buildings across the city were topped by little solar homes — one or two small, modular houses per roof, each efficient enough to power itself and even part of the building below?

Introducing: The Solar Roofpod.

The design — a group effort by City College’s Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture and the college’s Grove School of Engineering — had the desired impact. Among dozens of proposals submitted by student teams from across the United States and as far away as China, the solar roofpod — CCNY’s first entry since the contest began in 2002 — was one of the 20 to make it through several rounds of judging and be named a finalist.archsol1

And that’s when the real work began: An 18-month project by the CCNY team to build the house it designed — with money and in-kind donations of materials, several hundred thousand dollars worth, that the students are partially raising themselves. Next spring and summer, they will build and test the house on the roof of the campus’ Marshak Science Building’s terrace. (A CCNY architecture alumnus, Frank J. Sciame, is donating his services as construction manager, and his crew will give the students a hand with some of the heavy lifting.) And then “Team New York” will take the house apart, transport it, and reassemble it for the final competition on the National Mall in Washington next September.

The 10-day event, a popular biennial attraction in Washington, will include teams from five countries on four continents. There will be 10 competition categories and an overall winner with the best blend of energy efficiency, affordability, design and consumer appeal. The CCNY team’s design will be unique in at least one respect. The house will be the only one that will ask the judges who enter it to imagine, first, that they are several stories up — the trees and plantings around it notwithstanding.

“It’s a little bit utopian,” says architecture professor Christian Volkmann, the project’s lead faculty adviser. “But this is the Model T, the starting point in a longer process of research.” Volkmann and his fellow architecture faculty adviser, Hillary Brown, see their students’ roofpod prototype as a contribution to the University’s Sustainable CUNY initiative, in particular its key leadership role with city government in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar American City program. They hope it can also play a role in Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 initiative to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the city by 30 percent by 2017.

The house itself is only 850 square feet — the contest maximum is 1,000 — and uses lightweight, highly efficient and sustainable materials. It is designed so that all the structure’s components can be broken down and brought up to a building’s rooftop by stairway or elevator or an easy hoisting operation. It uses photovoltaic technology to power lights and appliances and solar thermal collectors to supply hot water and power the air-conditioning system. The house is enclosed in “smart” windows featuring louvers that use prism technology to maximize daylight while mitigating heat gain, potentially adding to the energy the house can generate for the residential or commercial building on which it sits. An elaborate system of sensors and controls enhances efficiency, and the whole thing sits atop a “green roof” designed to manage storm water, reduce the city’s “urban heat island” effect and contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. Even the plantings will be as green as it gets: Many of them will be edible, and they will be planted in the students’ homemade compost.

Discussing pre-schematic model of their design are, from left, architecture students John Vlahakis, Yinery Baez, Relbin Thomas, Rostyslav Pechenyy, Iskra Petrova and Yelisa Grullon.

Discussing pre-schematic model of their design are, from left, architecture students John Vlahakis, Yinery Baez, Relbin Thomas, Rostyslav Pechenyy, Iskra Petrova and Yelisa Grullon.

Once the house is constructed on the roof of the Marshak building next summer, the engineering students, under the guidance of the Grove School’s faculty adviser, Jorge Gonzalez, will test and retest the energy systems to maximize their efficiency for the final competition in Washington. The roofpod will be open to the public.

“It’s like starting your career early — while you’re still in school,” said Samuel Mikhail, a fourth-year architecture student who started out as a member of the studio design group and became the project’s student manager. “There’s the architecture and there’s the marketplace. It’s hands-on training, interacting with all the different fields and raising every penny.”

For Mikhail and other students, the project has brought sustainable energy front and center as they think about their careers. “It’s not something I really thought about before,” he said. “This project has changed my perspective drastically. Living green is possible and it’s the future of the country.”

The sophisticated design elements that came together in the solar roofpod emerged during an internal competition within the architecture and engineering schools in 2009. “We took the best elements of each project,” Volkmann said.

Working closely, the students have had more than a few lessons in the realities of one another’s fields. “How often do architecture and engineering students do something together?” said Yelisa Grullon, a Spitzer student. “Working on the roofpod, I can look at a drawing and say, ‘That’s not going to work,’ before we even draw the lines.”

The project will have lasted two years by the time the students arrive in Washington with their roofpod. Among them will be some who were in on it from the beginning and have since graduated. “You work long hours,” said Rajeevan Ratnanandan, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the Grove School. “You start to own the project. You can’t leave.”

For more information about the CCNY Solar Decathlon project, or to make a donation, visit www.ccnysolardecathlon.com.