by Daniel Berman
The path leading up to the large brown box in the parking lot is gritty and caked in yesterday's mud. My guide is John Backes, Shoreline Community College's Vice-President of Academic Affairs, and as we approach the re-bar covered front door, I can faintly see, through a frosted-glass window, the small, house-like interior.
But what exactly is this project? A bathroom, a coffee shack, maybe even a theatre-addition? Not even close.
The solar house, or zero-energy house as Shoreline affectionately refers to it, is the combined efforts of both Washington State University engineering and architecture students and local professionals.
So, let’s go inside.
It’s clear when we walk in that this is a project unfinished. A dozen power tools litter the floor, and much of the interior is still covered in drop cloth. The house has a large sink, a working microwave, and a dishwasher that mysteriously rolls out from beneath the sink.
The house feels larger than it appears from the outside, and dramatic pressed wood ceiling beams give the space a distinctly Northwest vibe. Farmed eucalyptus wood forms the walls of the room and natural light pours in from every direction.
A sign for the Solar Decathlon competition that brought the house to Washington sits in the corner of the room, directly beneath a bulletin board showing what is left to do on the project. First on the list: bid new cabinets. Next on the list: paint.
The frame of the house is a large recycled shipping container, and places where the frame has been bored out by years of rust reveal the ceiling: eight light sockets and no light bulbs in sight. This frame literally holds up the rest of the house, but also provides nooks and crannies to cram all the project's appliances; one side is the kitchen, and on the other a five-foot tall mirror hangs a few feet away from what will become a working shower.
According to Backes, about 60 to 100 hours in interior design work, mostly electrical, must be completed before the house opens to the campus and becomes the office of Mike Nelson, extension agent to WSU, and director of the Northwest Solar Project.
The actual solar panels are nearly as ingenious as the house itself. Most panels are designed for hot weather, always-sunny climates like Phoenix, but since Washington sees more inclement weather, cold-weather panels have been used. These panels sit nearly flat and though they are able to accept sunlight, they work just as efficiently off the ambient light present on a cloudy day.
Last summer, the bare components of the house were left in storage at Magnusson Park, before arriving at SCC. Once here, water damage destroyed part of the side, and delayed progress on the house, according to Backes.
The solar house was designed as a temporary structure and has required additional weather sealing for permanence.
"The house was designed to be broken down, shipped, and rebuilt," Backes said.
The college plans to hook up the structure to Seattle City Light’s electrical grid, and begin producing net solar power as early as this summer.
"There's no way we could use all the power this [house] generates," Backes said. "Now we can give back."