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City College's Green Solar Roofpod to Compete in International Competition

By Jeff Mays | September 9, 2011 6:46am
A terrace on the Solar Roofpod.
A terrace on the Solar Roofpod.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — It's the urban house of the future.

Situated on the rooftop of a building on City College's Harlem campus, with neo-classical architecture as a backdrop, the sleek 750-square-foot Solar Roofpod has a solar trellis that collects energy, and computer-controlled heating and ventilation systems designed for maximum energy efficiency.

Designed and built by dozens of engineering and architecture students from City College, the cutting-edge pod is headed to Washington, D.C., to compete against collegiate students from 19 other teams across the world as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon.

The goal of the international competition, which includes teams from China, Canada and Belgium, is to design and build a cost-effective solar-powered home that is not only energy efficient, but attractive as well.

Windows and blinds are programmed to automatically open and close to keep the pod at an optimal temperature, and those features can all be controlled from an iPhone. Rainwater is collected to help support the incorporated garden, which in turn helps to reduce polluting rain runoff. And built-in color-coded alert systems let the occupant know how much water and electricity they are using.

With a modular design so that it can be easily assembled on a metropolis rooftop almost anywhere in the world, the pod is designed to utilize earth's most abundant energy source — the sun — and the most underutilized urban space — rooftops.

After a year of work on the sleek pod, City College students say they've accomplished their goal.

 "We had to design these systems from the ground up," said Karl Francis, a graduate electrical engineering student and team leader, who had just pulled a second consecutive all-nighter to fine tune the pod's sophisticated instrumentation.

"My forte is hardware design, but I also became a computer programmer on this project. I had to learn about heating and ventilation. If you were fortunate enough to get some sleep, you had to wake up ready to push yourself," Francis added while standing next to the renewable bamboo plywood cabinets.

Mary Doumas, 23, an undergraduate architecture student, also learned to diversify her skill set. Not only had Doumas fabricated and welded the stainless steel overhang and metal supports for the handicapped-accessible ramp, she also worked on the water-collection system, known as the "bladder."

On Thursday afternoon, she worked with construction crews to finalize the plumbing system that separates the potable water from the septic water and gray recyclable water.

"I worked with everybody," said Doumas. "We've just learned so much. We got lucky and have a good team, but we also worked really hard to accomplish this."

Doumas wasn't the only one working to solve last-minute issues. Mechanical engineering professor Jorge Gonzalez climbed a ladder to the pod's roof as three students worked to solve a problem with the thermal collection system.

"Find a way to drain the system," Gonzalez told mechanical engineering student Rajee Van and fellow students after they climbed down from the roof.

"They put a lot of theory into this project, now they have a chance to see it in practice," Gonzalez said afterward. "Not everything is going to work out as planned. How do they overcome that? With the construction they have to learn how to solve problems. They learn to make decisions quickly."

No detail was left to chance.

Sliding glass doors bring the outside in. The Murphy bed disappears to give the pod's occupants more space during the day. A special ultraviolet pattern on the glass is designed so that the structure won't add to the 700,000 bird collision deaths per year in New York City.

Interior designer Alison Downey was brought in to develop a design to complete the pod's architecture. The linen sofa, leather lounge chair and cashmere pillows gave the room a modern yet comfortable feel.

"I wanted to use texture so it complements and not competes with the architecture," she said.

Gonzalez said he likes his student's chances at the competition, particularly because they constructed 90 percent of the pod themselves. But beyond the competition, the students have engineered and fabricated unique systems such as the thermal capture machinery.

"Some of the elements have great potential to become mainstream products because we emphasized thinking out of the box," said Gonzalez.

Francis said they were able to combine systems from different manufacturers to meet the needs of the house, such as the main control panel circuitry that had to be redesigned to control the entire pod. The systems that control the house are custom, but have the potential for adaptation.

"The companies that sponsored the competition want to look at the technology. They are very interested in what we are doing," said Francis.

They'd better be.

"We basically had our own firm," said Melissa Lopez, 22, an undergraduate architecture student who worked on the pod's affordability. "This is all stuff we'll be using soon in the real world."

The Solar Roofpod will be on display at National Mall’s West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., from Sept. 23 to Oct. 2.