Rays-ing the MorningStar: Solar house on display at Penn State

University Park, Pa. — The MorningStar Pennsylvania takes going green to a whole new level.

Nine-hundred students and faculty worked for two years to construct the home for the third Solar Decathlon in October 2007. The competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, challenged 20 universities from around the world to design, build and operate a solar-powered home that was both energy efficient and attractive.

The MorningStar is now open for drop-in tours from 1 to 4 p.m. most Sundays. It is located on Penn State's nine-acre Center for Sustainability, next to the visitor's center.

The MorningStar is made of materials native to the state, including Pennsylvania black slate, bluestone floor tile and recycled steel. Students designed the house's furniture, which was made of wood milled from campus trees.

Outside, moveable panels on the siding provide shade in the summer and retain heat in the winter. A garden of Common Rush, Autumn Bride Heuchera and October Skies Aster filters, cleans and stores rainwater for irrigation reuse.

The house is equipped with a device that tracks energy production and consumption. The system was designed to produce all of the energy needed in the home, plus extra to charge an electric vehicle.

According to David Riley, associate professor of architectural engineering and executive director of the Penn State Center for Sustainability, the cost of the MorningStar was about $350,000, including the technology used to make the home a campus laboratory.

"I'm quick to point out that people pay a million bucks for condos in D.C. that are smaller than this."

Riley, who served as the lead faculty member for the Penn State Solar Decathlon team, was impressed by the level of commitment his team showed.

"Students are used to class projects. This went on for two years. It was a huge sacrifice," he said. "One thing I found most compelling was that students felt that the issues of sustainability and green design were very important. Some didn't graduate on time because of the time they devoted to this project."

The hard work, however, paid off. Penn State placed fourth overall, beating out the likes of MIT, Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech.

Riley was not surprised with the way things turned out.

"Going in we knew it was going to be a very tough competition. I was delighted that we did as well as we did. We were in third place all week until the final scoring. We lost third place by four points," he said.

Craig Casey, a senior architectural engineering major and member of the 2007 Solar Decathlon team, heard about the competition from a teaching assistant in one of his architectural engineering courses. He describes the Decathlon as intense and exciting.

"When we got to Washington, D.C., we were still working on the house. When the competition started I had to come back to Penn State for classes but I was checking the Web site every day to see how we were doing," said Casey.

Fellow team member Angela Lewis, a doctoral degree student in architectural engineering, said her interest in the environment began with recycling and grew into a lifelong interest in environmental responsibility.

One of her fondest memories from the Decathlon was the day the home's photovoltaic system finally had power.

"The look on the lead electrician's face made everything worth it," Lewis said.

After the competition, the MorningStar returned to the University Park campus to be used for research, teaching and outreach. The solar home officially opened its doors to the public two weeks ago.

"We had a super turn-out," said Riley, of the open house. "The press showed up and we had lots of guests. Some 500 people came through."

Penn State is already preparing for the 2009 Solar Decathlon. Riley is hopeful that the new team will keep up the momentum and interest that the 2007 crew started.

"There's a fresh team of students. I hope they're able to benefit from the pioneering students who did it the first time," he said.

Riley is thankful for all the corporations, alumni and Penn State entities who made the project possible.

"The staff members in the Department of Architectural Engineering that managed this project were terrific," he added. "We could not have done it without them."

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Last Updated March 19, 2009