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We've all done it and we all hate it. Moving day. It is a joyless ritual that strains both backs and the bonds of friendship, a day circled in black on our calendars to represent the mood it puts us in. But for some 40 architecture and engineering undergraduates from McGill, Université de Montréal and École de technologie supérieure, their moving day—Sept. 29—can't come soon enough.
The students make up Team Montreal, one of only 20 teams worldwide selected to compete in the prestigious Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. from October 12-20. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Solar Decathlon challenges participants to design, build and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered home possible. After some two years of planning and constructing their enviro-friendly abode in Laval, Team Montreal will dismantle it, pack it up and head on down the road to Washington for their day in the sun.
Simon Jones, an adjunct architecture professor at McGill and one of the project's supervisors says that the final product has been designed with an eye on comfort and sustainability—two words that don't often go hand-in-hand. "The house is fairly small by North American standards—about 800 square feet," he says. "But that's appropriate for a building that's aimed toward sustainability. The key is that, using only solar energy, the house must generate enough power to light everything, cook meals, keep the fridge cold, make hot water, run washing machine, to have a computer going and TV—all the luxuries we're accustomed to."
Those luxuries extend to driving a car, albeit it an electric one. One of the Solar Decathlon's 10 events is the Getting Around contest. Using electricity generated by their house's solar electric system, teams charge their commercially available electric vehicles and hit the road. The farther they drive, the more points they earn.
The only Canadian entry in the field, Team Montreal is up against some pretty stiff competition, including M.I.T., Cornell and two-time defending champion University of Colorado. But for Jones, regardless of the final rankings, every student comes out of this a big winner. "Sure, research is interesting, as are case studies and mock-ups," he says. "But this project has to fly. You have to build a house and it has to perform. When you hit the switch, the light has to go on. By the end of it, these students probably have more practical knowledge in regards to sustainable building design than many working architects."
The Solar decathlon will be contested on Washington's National Mall, home of such architectural icons as the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. "It's the biggest public stage in the whole world and they expect 250,000 people to come through while we're there," says Jones. "That's pretty heady stuff."