As part of my continuing preview coverage of the 20 student-designed solar-powered homes duking it in the upcoming 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon, I thought I’d take a look at the entrants from first-time contenders West Virginia University and The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, two formidable contenders that really couldn’t be more different, inspiration wise: A traditional log cabin-styled abode that pays tribute to the “wild and wonderful” mountaineering spirit of Appalachia and a sophisticated city residence inspired by urban revitalization projects.
 
Now, a look at both the country house and the city house:
 
While previous Solar Decathlon teams have embraced their Appalachian roots (an infectious spirit and ample facial hair helped Appalachian State’s Solar Homestead snag the 2011 People’s Choice Award), West Virginia University’s modern-rustic PEAK (Preserving Energy with Appalachian Knowledge) is the very first log cabin to hit the competition.
 
Well, kind of.
 
In an effort to “demonstrate the heritage and homey, old-fashioned aesthetic of the hills of West Virginia” and achieve a distinctly cozy n’ countrified vibe without resorting to real log construction, the WVU team built PEAK using SIPs (structural insulated panels) clad with log veneers. As part of the home’s extensive passive design strategy, a ventilating solar chimney in the center of the home stands in for a traditional cabin hearth.
Sure, gathering around a solar chimney in a home built from insulating panels isn’t quite the same as sitting by a roaring fire in an authentic log cabin nestled away in the rugged wilds of West Virginia but, hey, it’s close enough, as PEAK is all about honoring tradition not replicating it.
 
Decidedly non-rustic highlights of PEAK include an interior living wall, a rainwater-capturing rooftop garden, an all-encompassing tablet/smartphone-controlled home automation system, a PV panel-clad carport with EV charger, smart kitchen appliances, and a health monitoring system with floor-integrated scales and blood pressure-monitoring wristbands that enables modern mountaineers, when not whittling, skinnin’ coons, and strumming a dulcimer on the wraparound deck, to keep on top of their cholesterol levels.
 
With a flowing, entertaining-centric-floor plan that celebrates indoor-outdoor living, PEAK will return to the WVU campus post-competition and be rebuilt as a sustainable demo home and event space.
 
 
Moving away from the rolling hills of Western Virginia to the urban infill(s) of a major metropolitan area of over 2 million residents is UNC Charlotte’s UrbanEden, a net-zero energy modular home specifically designed to be plopped down, or planted rather, in the middle of the bustling city.
 
Dubbed as a “Tree in the City” and inspired by Charlotte’s ongoing urban revitalization projects guided by an ambitious 2020 Vision Plan, the design of UrbanEden is a response to the question “how do you bring nature into the city?”
 
UrbanEden is defined by a commitment to urbanism: sustainability, vibrancy and diversity, technological innovation — a house that is good for the environment, that promotes a certain way of life, and that creates a place of peace inside the bustle of the city.
 
Constructed with pre-cast geopolymer cement concrete — an eco-friendly building material developed at UNC Charlotte that provides a barrier from the noise of the city while providing a 90 percent reduction in carbon footprint compared to traditional concerete — and a recycled-content steel framing system, UrbanEden may revolve around big city sophistication but it also celebrates the outdoors with ample exterior living spaces geared to make its inhabitants and Mother Nature more intimate while also making the home feel bigger than it actually is.

Highlights of the home’s outdoor living space are a series of rainwater-collecting “ponds” and on the building’s southern side, an expansive living wall system with multiple panels: a floral panel outside the living room, a vegetable and herb panel outside of the kitchen, and a lush, privacy-providing evergreen wall for the bedroom. 

Additional (and there a lot) green bells and whistles of the home include triple-pane windows, locally manufactured nontoxic paints, laminated bamboo paneling in both the interior and exterior of the home, a south-facing glass wall, a retractable 30-panel solar photovoltaic rack with 7.65kW capacity, an energy monitoring system, high-efficiency appliances, and a hybrid passive-active hydronic radiant heating and cooling system.
 
And just like any proper home in the city with a relatively small footprint, UrbanEden boasts several pieces of transformer furniture including an entertainment center that morphs into a Murphy bed for when party guests — and mother-in-laws — decide to crash.
 
Envisioned as a urban infill project with a target market of young urban professionals and empty nesters who appreciate city life and sustainability with equal measure, UrbanEden, like PEAK, will return to its home campus following the 2013 Solar Decathlon where it will serve as a sustainable demo home. 
 
 

Plenty more information on all 20 collegiate teams competing to build the most attractive, livable, and efficient solar-powered home in all the land can be found at the 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon homepage. And for the record, the big event kicks off on Oct. 3 at its new home, Great Orange Park in sunny Irvine, Calif.

Keep an eye out as I'll be publishing a couple more sneak peeks featuring this year's competiting homes as we nearer to the big event. Do you have an early favorite that you'll be rooting for? 

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