LOUISVILLE — Students from three universities are working on a solar house concept they hope will be useful as low-cost, energy-efficient housing after natural disasters.
The team from the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky and Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., is putting the final touches on the Phoenix House — a domicile that may one day replace temporary trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
University of Louisville civil and environmental engineering professor Mark McGinley told The Courier-Journal the team wanted a modular home that could be assembled quickly and transported by truck to a disaster location.
“We wanted to be able to respond to disasters, get the people out of the FEMA trailers, cut that out of the response lexicon, and go directly into a house that they can then grow to meet their needs,” McGinley said.
The main module contains a kitchen, bathroom and living room areas and appliances and utilities. A second module adds two bedrooms, so the approximately 1,000-square-foot house could sleep up to eight people on bunk beds and a pull-out sofa. The house’s owners could eventually add more modules, or build an addition, to increase the space.
The homes would be equipped with solar panels to produce electricity along with high-efficiency heating.
In October, the team will take the house to Irvine, Calif., for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, an international biennial contest where collegiate teams compete to produce affordable, energy-efficient housing.
Phoenix House numbers among 20 international teams that qualified for the Solar Decathlon. The house will be judged by its architecture, market appeal, affordability, efficiency and other measures.
Phoenix House is designed to produce at least 20 percent more energy than it consumes per year. The team achieved this by equipping the house with an array of solar panels on its angled roof, to produce electricity, along with highly efficient heating, cooling and insulation to reduce demand.
“If you were hooked up to the grid, you would see that the meter spins backwards because you’d make more energy than you use,” said Kelsey King, a graduate student at the Speed School of Engineering and project manager on the Phoenix House.
The surplus energy would help offset the cost of the solar panels, according to Mark McGinley, professor of civil and environmental engineering at U of L.
“We kept it very simple so we could keep the costs down,” he said.
The inspiration for the Phoenix House came from the devastation caused by the tornadoes that tore through Southern Indiana and Eastern Kentucky in March 2012. Several team members had family and friends affected by the storms.
The team decided to build a house that could replace the temporary trailers provided by FEMA for disaster victims. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the delays and problems with the trailers became national news. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control found elevated levels of formaldehyde in the trailers.
The team designed the bathroom to function as a “safe room,” with a bulletproof-glass window and reinforced walls and roof that could be used for sheltering in place during a tornado.
“There’s not really a way to make a disaster-proof house,” King said.
It all contributes to the intended permanence of Phoenix House, King said.
“We wanted this to be a permanent home,” King said. “People are restarting. They’ve gone through this disaster; this is going to be their new home.”