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UNC Charlotte builds solar home for city life

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  • Urban Eden

    Purpose: UNC Charlotte architecture and engineering students set out to create a marketable solar-powered home with gardens for small, urban lots.

    Main features: 30 solar panels that can be positioned to make shade for the deck and living areas; glass walls with components that open to decks; and cabinetry from bamboo, a renewable building material.

    Square feet: nearly 850 inside, about 800 outside on the deck. The house has one bedroom and one bathroom.

    Estimated market price: $350,000.

    Exhibition: More than 300,000 people are expected to see UNC Charlotte’s Urban Eden and other projects built for the competition. This year’s expo will be Oct. 3-13 in Irvine, Calif.

    Learn more: www.urbaneden.uncc.edu and www.solardecathlon.gov.



Most of us are getting nudges toward “greener” living. But how will city life unfold in the super-efficient homes that we’re told are necessary in the future to protect the planet?

Architecture and engineering students at UNC Charlotte have fleshed out one idea: a tiny 850-square-foot dwelling that they call Urban Eden. Students built the house on campus and are having it moved to California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2013 Solar Decathlon contest.

Square footage aside, it’s a compelling design, one of 20 proposals selected for the college competition in October.

The UNC Charlotte team produced a handsome, contemporary one-bedroom, one-bath house that works hard to connect the indoors and outdoors. There are 30 solar panels on the roof that should produce all the electricity needed by residents – presumably young professionals or empty nesters.

Students also peeked into Charlotte’s Center City 2020 Vision Plan to come up with a design that might inspire builders and homebuyers working with small urban lots. Urban Eden shows that a zero-energy-use solar system and gardens can be squeezed into a little space.

“We value the smaller carbon footprint of an urban lifestyle, where you have access to public transportation, cultural amenities and parks,” said Meg Whalen, a spokesperson for UNC Charlotte. “We have linked that to Charlotte’s 2020 vision of revitalizing and investing in the urban center. We were just inspired by that.”

Decathlon teams compete in 10 categories that rate each home’s performance, livability and affordability. Teams can earn up to 100 points in each contest.

Judges will consider architecture, market appeal, engineering, communication (website, public tours, etc.), affordability, comfort zone (humidity and temperatures), hot water production, appliance performance, home entertaining, and energy production and consumption.

While many would question the home’s affordability at an estimated market price of $350,000 for less than 900 square feet, Whalen said the home produces its own electricity to provide some savings. It also has energy-efficient appliances.

Glass walls with components that open and close visually link the interior and exterior spaces. When the doors are open, residents and visitors can move to and from the decks, which are surrounded by vertical gardens.

“The idea is how can you live in the middle of downtown Charlotte and still have plenty of privacy – to be outdoors in privacy – and have a garden,” Whalen said.

Bamboo is considered a renewable building material, so it’s used inside and out for furniture, cabinetry and other wood finishes. Using the same type of wood inside and out gives the design visual unity. The team also used nontoxic building materials where possible.

Solar panels hanging over the deck can be positioned to block the sun in summer. The panels can be retracted in winter to warm the deck and the home’s interior.

“I lived in an uptown condo for a year,” said Preston Finnie, who worked on the Urban Eden project as an undergraduate and graduate student. “The glass walls in an uptown condo create heat. My power bills were pretty severe. I would prefer living in that house versus an uptown condominium.”

Storage areas are hidden within the walls to make the most of the limited space. A Murphy bed is concealed behind the wall where a television is mounted. Some of the appliances are hidden behind cabinets.

Plants and trees often become scarce as urban areas grow. Vertical gardens outside this home give residents space for flowers and vegetables.

“The whole concept is to build a house that brings the garden into the city,” Whalen said. “That’s the idea of an Eden.”

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