MorningStar solar home creating conversations, legacy

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter, and is the second story in a series on sustainability at Penn State.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- For the moment, students Jesse Della Valle and Taylor Ryan make you believe you’ve been transported from Penn State’s University Park campus to NASA headquarters.

They’re using terms such as passive solar energy, solar slates and deceiving storage space. They’re speaking confidently and succinctly, like experts, and they’re doing this as they give a tour of Penn State’s MorningStar solar home, an environmental gem located a few hundred yards from Beaver Stadium.

Built for competition in the 2007 Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C., the MorningStar solar house is a net-zero home, meaning it creates just as much (or more) energy as it consumes. It’s mobile, versatile, and above all else, sustainable. And Della Velle and Ryan are explaining why as they begin a tour on the front porch.  

“This is the south wall of the house, and this is how the house uses passive solar energy, so we don’t need mechanical systems to use the natural heat of the sun,” says Ryan, who then points to a row of eight-foot windows that allows heat into the house.

Ryan continues: “In the winter, the low sun will come in and help heat the house, especially with that slate floor that has high mass and really holds in that heat from the sun. But right now you can see we have the screens pulled over and that helps detract from the high summer sun coming in, so that’s a pretty cool part of these screens.”

“Cool” is a word that’s probably spoken fairly often around the house, which was designed and built on campus by more than 800 students through a variety of design competitions. The home was transported to Washington, D.C., for the Solar Decathlon and then brought back to State College. Now, it sits on Porter Road, opposite from Penn State’s track and field facilities and down the hill from Medlar Field at Lubrano Park.

Penn State finished fourth in the competition, which was sponsored by the Department of Energy, placing higher than schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech and Colorado, the two-time defending champion.

Thousands of visitors, including alumni, toured the model home during the decathlon. Judges considered 10 categories — architecture, engineering, lighting and marketability, among others — and ranked the 20 competing international universities accordingly.

Built for competition in the 2007 Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C., the MorningStar solar house is a net-zero home, meaning it creates just as much (or more) energy as it consumes. It’s mobile, versatile, and above all else, sustainable.

Since Penn State students knew the house would return to campus after the Solar Decathlon, they built the home so it could function as a teaching environment and a research lab for future generations. An on-site classroom allows for instruction, as well.

“This house has been really pivotal in building up some different facilities for learning and we’re also using it for research,” says David Riley, associate professor of architectural engineering, senior resident scholar and program manager for the Reinvention Fund at Penn State's Sustainability Institute. “There’s a lot of data coming out of this house and facility.”

Inside, Della Valle continues the tour, and in a lot of ways, the home looks pretty standard. There’s a kitchen, bedroom, dining room and a living room. Books sit on a shelf, a television sits idly by and there’s even mail on the counter.

Key word: “looks.” This is important to keep in mind as Della Valle begins moving around pieces of the house.

He walks up to the wall that separates the bedroom from the dining room and slides it back and forth. Sitting on a movable track, the wall can move forward and back to make either the bedroom or dining room more spacious. Clear glass panels that serve as room dividers can be pulled from the wall and placed between the kitchen and the other side of the house. A closet or other storage room isn’t visible, but that’s before Della Valle slides a ceiling-high compartment located in the bedroom out from the wall.

At this point, you’re half-expecting Della Valle to reveal a hidden staircase by sitting in a certain chair or pulling a specific book out from the bookshelf, but there’s a reason why the house was designed in such a way: it was built small -- 799 square feet -- to fit within the 800-square-feet limit for the competition, so versatility is necessary. 

“One way of getting around the size of the home is being able to utilize those movable objects to store things or create more space for yourself,” Della Valle says.

A few feet away, movable shelves that hold rows of milk bottles are in front of the window. When filled with water, the bottles can absorb the sun’s rays and heat the house during the day and be removed at night. The home’s insulation keeps the heat in, another product of the design team.

“Pretty innovative strategy there by the team,” Della Valle says.

True, Della Valle and Ryan aren’t working for NASA. But they are Penn State students, and they’re building on an impressive legacy established by fellow students about a decade ago.

Ryan, who will be a junior in the fall, and Della Valle, a senior, both have internships with the Sustainability Institute, though they have different career backgrounds.

Ryan is a community, environment and development (CED) major, and became even more interested in sustainability after taking a class taught by Riley and Lisa Brown, who oversees the nine-acre plot that houses the MorningStar solar home as well as a greenhouse, a community garden and other student projects.   

“I didn’t really understand why energy efficiency was a big deal,” Ryan says. “They taught me how much of an impact I’m making and to be much more mindful of that. And more than just turning off the lights: What materials are we using? How are you running the systems in your house? I think a lot more about that.”

Della Valle, meanwhile, is majoring in advertising and labor employment relations and also is a defensive back on the football team. He previously wasn’t aware that the MorningStar home even existed, but his curiosity piqued after receiving an email about the internship.

“I never knew Penn State was doing this stuff,” Della Valle says. “It was definitely interesting for me to come out here and learn new things, new techniques about how you can generate energy for your home. I’m learning something new every day and it’s definitely something that I’m cherishing.”

Not only is it all right that Della Valle didn’t have prior knowledge of what was going on, it was somewhat welcomed. Riley says the projects and courses the MorningStar supports are intended for students from all majors and interests, saying that sustainability knowledge should be infused into every area of study.

Time and again, Riley points out that the MorningStar home was, and is, completely driven by students, as are many of the other projects that reside nearby. The greenhouse was a class gift, and students oversee the community garden, having just received a new grant so they can add to it this year.

There’s value in having students like Ryan and Della Valle involved in what’s happening at the house, Riley and Brown both say. Both students helped create a minor degree in sustainability leadership at Penn State and a course that helps prepare students to provide tours of the home, and encourage students to schedule classes or pursue internships that will include working at the home.

“It’s exciting to have students involved and it’s a great opportunity for them to be engaged in conversations about sustainability,” Brown says.

Additionally, Riley notes that Fortune 500 companies are incorporating sustainability into their future business models and that professors at Penn State are beginning to understand that they need to teach differently in this new age. Creating immersive teaching environments will benefit students who previously grew up thinking they could take for granted that they’d always have adequate energy and food sources.

Students understand this shift in education, too, which is what led to the MorningStar solar home and its nearby environmental endeavors.  

“How did this place come about? I attribute it to the energy of our students, and one of the unique aspects of this nine-acre site is it’s all here because of students,” says Riley, who became passionate about sustainability after living in Seattle and absorbing the city’s penchant for constructing green buildings.

Riley is the grandson of Ridge Riley, long-time writer of the Alumni Association’s member-benefit publication, The Football Letter. Around 2005, Riley wanted to make sustainability more mainstream, relatable and invite people to a facility “where you can get your hands dirty, where we can try experiments and share what we’ve learned.”

To hear Riley explain building the home for the Solar Decathlon, you needed to think like a maverick, to go beyond what you thought was possible to actually making it happen.

“That was a roll-of-the-dice effort to do something that would really change the face of this place and build something that was attractive and appealing to diverse audiences,” says Riley, who has a construction background and has worked on American Indian reservations, focusing on sustainable housing.  

When the model home was built for the decathlon, everyone emphasized using local materials, or in many cases, re-using.

Much of the wood used came from the on-campus diseased elm trees that have been forced to come down in recent years. Pennsylvania blue slate stone used on the patio and inside floor helps absorb the sun’s heat, refurbished barn shingles from Carlisle, Pa., cover the south wall of the home and the aforementioned milk bottles came from Penn State. The students also used steel beams from Pittsburgh for the construction.

Then there are the parts the team invented, such as the heat-pump water heater. Now, you can buy such a device, but students created their own system in 2006. The reason? A heat-pump water heater is two-and-a-half times more efficient than a regular water heater.

In the years following the decathlon, Riley says students and Penn State became even more plugged into renewable and solar energy sources.

The experience of the Decathlon helped land significant education and training grants, which helped them build a solar carport, geothermal wells, wind turbines and the foundation for the house. Penn State even hosted a conference the year after the decathlon, welcoming in experts and establishing relationships.

“What the students really were mindful about, and what we have students continue to appreciate when they’re here, is that a visit here is more than just a conversation about new technologies,” Brown says. “This is really a platform to have broad conversations about sustainability and thinking differently about our lifestyle and our impact on each other, as well as the environment around us.”

People of all ages and backgrounds often visit the home, including youngsters. Classes of third- and fourth-graders recently toured the house, with the students writing letters on the experience.

One third-grader even brought his mom and a friend back the next day, walking around the house and explaining what he learned the previous day.

That type of an impact doesn’t go unnoticed, as Riley says: “Those are the kinds of experiences that we’re really built to pursue.”

As Riley points out, having a home for a connection point makes it relatable, and visitors can more easily see themselves implementing tips they’ve learned in a home, as opposed to a lab or classroom.

“It’s definitely interesting to see that they took stuff away from the tour,” Della Valle adds. “That’s good, that’s what we want to do, is educate kids and anyone who comes here.”

In addition to local students and community members, the house attracts students and administrators from colleges across the country, and even the world. International representatives have visited the MorningStar solar home, and the experience has made an impact.

As Riley points out, having a home for a connection point makes it relatable, and visitors can more easily see themselves implementing tips they’ve learned in a home, as opposed to a lab or classroom.

That makes the message powerful, Riley says, just like the ones they receive.

“It’s really gratifying to hear the envy that many of the visitors have about a tangible, physical place like this,” Riley says. “A lot of these systems and technologies, people hear about them, but to come out and be able to see them first-hand and see them in use carries a lot of meaning. We feel very fortunate to have a place like this, and based on the feedback from our guests, we should.”

To schedule a tour of the MorningStar solar home, fill out an online form here.

Part one of our four-part series on sustainability examined the history of Trash 2 Treasure, Penn State's annual move-out sale.

Part three will focus on the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts moving toward a zero-waste event, and part four will look at how the athletic department creates a sustainable environment at home athletic and community events during the school year. 

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in AlumnInsider, the Penn State Alumni Association's monthly member e-newsletter, and is the second story in a series on sustainability at Penn State.

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Last Updated July 22, 2014