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Photo: UNC Charlotte/Urban Eden

It’s no surprise corporations are leading the solar boom in North Carolina, but our universities are also charging forward with innovative approaches to sustainable construction and design too. A multidisciplinary team from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte entered “UrbanEden” into the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2013, bringing home two awards – tied for third place in the juried Engineering Contest and winning the popular-vote People’s Choice Award..

UrbanEden is a net-zero energy solar powered home “inspired by a commitment to urban revitalization.” Although it’s designed for urban living, it still embraces nature with an indoor/outdoor design that doubles living space. Key innovations for the house include geopolymer cement concrete – an innovation which both increases the home’s cooling capabilities and reduces the amount of carbon emissions involved in manufacture:

Embedded in our precast panels are arrays of small diameter plastic “capillary” tubes. In the summer, the concrete slowly takes on ambient heat from the interior space during the day. At night, water is moved through the capillary tubes to copper fin heat exchangers above the roof. The combination of the large surface areas of the interior wythe of concrete and the embedded tubes creates a very efficient transfer medium for heat. Since the night sky, especially on a clear night, is a giant reservoir for radiant heat transfer, our system cools the concrete, and hence the space, even with a very low difference between interior and exterior air temperatures. The result is cooling without using compressors or refrigerants – essentially passive cooling.

Other features include adjustable photovoltaic panels, a hybrid cooling system throughout its walls, and responsive technology that delivers awesome adaptability to the changing environment. Design started in October 2011, construction in March 2013, and the house took a journey to California in October 2013, an impressive two year effort.

For detailed information on the project visit the Urban Eden website.

The Solar Decathlon is a contest among collegiate teams that design and build energy-efficient solar powered houses. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the criteria for a wining house:

  • Is affordable, attractive, and easy to live in
  • Maintains comfortable and healthy indoor environmental conditions
  • Supplies energy to household appliances for cooking, cleaning, and entertainment
  • Provides adequate hot water
  • Produces as much or more energy than it consumes.

The team at UNC Charlotte: “is comprised of faculty and students from three different areas: the School of Architecture, the William States Lee College of Engineering, and the Belk College of Business. Generous support for the two-year project of designing and building the house came from a broad array of University units, as well as many private and corporate funders, including Duke Energy and Ingersoll Rand.”