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Solar Decathlon 2011: Team Canada's Turtle-like TRTL

Students from the University of Calgary are building a rounded structure designed to honor the culture and traditions of Alberta’s native people

Posted on Feb 22 2011 by Richard Defendorf

The path to Solar Decathlon 2011 for Team Canada – an interdisciplinary group of students from the University of Calgary – cuts through the prairie of southern Alberta and incorporates the culture and traditions of the area’s indigenous people, the Treaty 7 First Nations of Alberta.

In a video walk-through of the project, the video's narrator, Chief Reggie Crowshoe of the Piikani Nation, explains that in First Nations culture, “the sun has always been an important source of power that gives meaning to everything it shines upon: … a world in which all things, including homes, are considered living things. And like its occupants, the home is connected to all things as part of a greater natural order.”

Obviously, that concept meshes well with the core Solar Decathlon goal of making the most of the sun's energy, although the designers of Team Canada’s turtle-shaped house – appropriately dubbed TRTL, for “technological residence, traditional living” – delved much deeper into First Nation tradition to come up with the overall structure.

Live at the International Builder's Show

Shaping technology around tradition
In January at the International Builders’ Show, University of Calgary Professor Lorraine Fowlow, who specializes in the history and theory of environmental design, told CBC Radio that the rounded shape of the house derived from consultations with First Nations groups and reflects their feelings about the standard housing currently found on First Nations reservations, “which tends to be very box-like – really the antithesis of their cultural experience of the teepee, which is circular, no corners, very communal living. You don’t have corners or places to put belongings (in a traditional First Nations dwelling). It’s all shared. So we have as few corners as possible.”

At just under 1,000 sq. ft., the TRTL house includes two bedrooms, one bath, and a relatively large communal area with the kitchen at its center. The steel-laced substructure is designed to resist fire and mold – which have long plagued housing on First Nations reservations – and exterior walls are constructed of structural insulated panels (SIPs). The south-facing half of the roof is covered with enough PVPhotovoltaics. Generation of electricity directly from sunlight. A photovoltaic (PV) cell has no moving parts; electrons are energized by sunlight and result in current flow. modules to provide up to 9 kW of electrical power. To help simplify the home’s operation and maintenance, team member Johann Kyser told GBA’s Justin Fink, the PV system is its sole solar component.

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The south wall is heavily glazed to maximize wintertime solar gain, which is augmented by an air-source heat pumpHeat pump that relies on outside air as the heat source and heat sink; not as effective in cold climates as ground-source heat pumps.. The mechanical systems are housed in a central section of the house for easy access and to reduce the amount of plumbing and ductwork.

At IBS, a preliminary evaluation
At the International Builders’ Show, the team’s engineering plans were critiqued by John Wiles, program manager at New Mexico State University’s Southwest Technology Development Institute. Wiles gave Team Canada a “yellow” rating for its engineering on TRTL, an indication that the project, in his view, was on its way to earning mostly positive ratings in the Decathlon’s engineering competition, one of the contest’s 10 competition categories. “Which is more than most teams,” Wiles can be heard telling team members in the CBC clip. “Which means you did a pretty good job.”

Kyser said that TRTL will be transported to the Decathlon site in three semi-trailers; a fourth truck will carry the project’s temporary landscaping. Once the competition is over, the building will be shipped back to Alberta and serve as demonstration home in a First Nations community, allowing Team Canada to field further feedback about how it can be improved.

For an overview of the Solar Decathlon teams, see GBA's 2011 Solar Decathlon Resource Guide

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Image Credits:

  1. University of Calgary

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