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Experimental Solar Roofpod Returning to City College

By Jeff Mays | January 22, 2013 3:15pm

HARLEM — A solar roofpod designed to demonstrate that the urban house of the future can be energy efficient and attractive will be returning to City College, where it was first built before heading off to a national completion in 2011.

The roofpod, which will likely be re-installed atop the Spitzer School of Architecture, was built, designed and decorated by students. It was displayed on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in 2011 as one of 19 homes chosen as a finalist in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon.

Christian Volkmann, an associate professor of architecture who served as the project's manager, said the pod will serve as a meeting space for academics and professionals and can be used to test new ideas in building design and energy conservation.

"It's not just there to be exhibited. It will stand for its important purpose," said Volkmann.

"We did ourselves a great disservice in the last decade and let other countries get way ahead of us in things like hybrid technology and green technology," Volkmann added. "We must have more examples like this to show people that these types of projects are possible, that they are not too expensive."

The solar roofpod had been disassembled and stored in a New Jersey warehouse following the competition. In June, the process will begin to place the roofpod on the City College campus, officials said.

The pod has all sorts of potential applications when it comes to urban housing. Flooding from Hurricane Sandy showed how important it was to lift the mechanical elements of buildings out of the basement. Placing them on the roof using the pod design is one possibility.

During a storm or a blackout, the solar panels on the pod could be used to power the essential functions of a building without electricity.

"If every building had its own energy supply to maintain basic life functions, what happened last fall wouldn't have happened," said Volkmann. "The roofpod could be the backup for each building."

More than 100 students participated in the design and construction of the pod, which contains a cooling system run off of heat, known as an exhaustive cooling system, and a glass with a reflective coating that is invisible to the human eye but is visible to birds to prevent them from crashing. The students built 90 percent of the project themselves.

The pod has a modular design, making it easy to assemble on the city's rooftops. It also features rainwater collection, and windows and blinds have been programmed to open and close to keep the space at an optimal temperature to save energy. Portions of the pod could be controlled from an iPhone.

More than $1 million in donated material and volunteer hours was used to construct the roofpod, which was completed in August 2011 before it was dismantled, shrink-wrapped and shipped to Washington, D.C., for the competition.

The design came in 17th overall, partly because of issues with the mechanical systems. The two cloudy days of the competition hindered the roofpod's solar panels as well, Volkmann said. But the students earned second place in the people's choice award.

Many of the students who worked on the pod have now graduated and are out working in the real world. This project, said Volkmann, instilled in the students a new set of skills vital to future development.

"They learned what you don't often pick up in school, which is collaborative learning. It's about architects learning to talk to engineers and other professionals to come up with solutions," said Volkmann.

"This project showed us that the relationship between academics and professionals is very important," he added.