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EASI House Reflects New England—With a Dash of Central America

Monday, June 15, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 Western New England University, Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá, and Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana team is seeking a blend in its Efficient, Affordable, Solar, Innovation—or EASI—House.

A first-time Solar Decathlon entrant, the team wants its project to reflect two geographical areas. The team also wants to ensure that its modular home is both energy-efficient and affordable. In fact, the team is aiming for a price tag of $80,000 to $100,000 for the structure—a goal made realistic by working with a modular home company to help build the design.

“The primary aspect of the house we’re focusing on is the affordability,” says decathlete Jacob Harrelson, the team’s project manager, on campus at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts. “We’re making it a modular house design so it can be picked up and taken anywhere you want. And within the competition limits, we’re trying to keep it on the small side.”

Computer-generated illustration of a solar-powered house.

EASI House from Western New England University, Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá, and Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana features an affordable, modular design. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 Western New England University, Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá, and Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana team)

Still, the team wants the compact two-bedroom, 680-ft2 house to be comfortable even with a minimalist feel.

“We’re trying to build a house that’s reasonable for the average Baby Boomers retiring or new family who still wants space for kids,” says decathlete Nathan Lane, a civil engineering major and also the team project engineer.

As such, the team is trying to balance the space for living rooms and bedrooms. The team is using space-saving furniture to maximize living space and custom-designed, high-performance windows to maximize solar heat gain.

The team will opt for a little more insulation in the walls, but that could be cut back in locations with warmer climates (such as Central America). Twenty 250-watt photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof will provide solar energy for the ultra-efficient house.

One hope is that the design serves as a model for modular home builders to replicate in the future—with the costs going down with increased scale.

“It won’t be cookie-cutter. You can take the design and make it your own,” Lane says.

Also, such a modular structure can be placed on a truck and brought to the competition ready to be hooked up with minimal assembly.

The Central American students will contribute decoration and other finishing touches for the inside. “They’re going to add interior finishes,” Lane says. “That’s their culture in our project.”

So far, there haven’t been any communication issues because the Spanish-speaking students also speak English. And, if needed, the New England crew can toss in some Spanish—un poquito—for effect.

“We mostly communicate through late-night email and Skype chats,” says Harrelson, explaining that the Central American students are still in school and many of the U.S. engineers are working at internships.

Still, they are familiar with one another because both Central American universities visited the Springfield campus last year to help organize the effort. In all, the team is made up of 40 students, with 16 students from Western New England University, 12 students from Panama, and 12 students from Honduras.

The group is planning to stay on track with construction deadlines and is optimistic it can overcome a “rough learning curve.” Although there have been frustrations, says Lane, in the end, “We take pride in this, which pushes us ahead.”

The team hopes EASI House will return to the Western New England University campus and inspire future decathletes.

Ernie Tucker is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.

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