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The University of Kentucky’s Blue Solar Decathlon house was a labor of inspiration, that of inspiring the local community to see the possibilities of sustainable building while at the same time allowing the region’s culture to guide the home’s basic design principles.

Based on the simple-living concepts of the Shakers, who have historically had a strong base in the Bluegrass State, the house operates under the mantra of “Live.Light” by showcasing the potential elegance and functionality of efficient, purposeful design. Drawing on Shaker principles of efficiency of space and a sense of proportion designed around the relationship to the sun, the linear-shaped home, reminiscent of many Kentucky residences, allows for cross breezes and an east-to-west migration of sunlight—from the bedroom in the morning to the living space in the evening.

Along with clean lines throughout the house, modular furniture and storage further evoke the Shaker lifestyle of creating a feeling of harvest and gathering. An eight-person dining table unfolds on hinges from a pocket in the kitchen wall and chairs fold to a flat position for hanging on the wall, opening up the living space for entertaining. Built-in cabinetry throughout the hallway and bedroom provide ample, yet subtle, storage.

Designed for ADA compliance, the hallways and doorways are wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair; in the kitchen, countertops can be raised or lowered, and special hardware in the high cabinet above the sink brings contents within easy reach.

In addition to design ideas, the team used 90% locally sourced/manufactured materials, including the cherry and white maple veneer on the cabinets and the GE appliances. Cement board cladding on the rear exterior was not only made in the state, but a series of artist-designed perforations in the panels can be lit from behind to represent the Kentucky landscape of horse farms and expansive fields and sky.

The south-facing front of the structure houses 60 solar thermal evacuated tubes as well as photovoltaic modules that supplement the panels outfitted across the roof. To avoid a claustrophobic feel from the roof panels, expanses of glass around the home promote constant contact with the outdoors; clerestory windows lining the perimeter of the roof bring in additional light and ventilation, as does sunlight reflecting off of the bottom of the solar panels into the north-side skylights.

Residents in the Blue house can monitor systems via the Automated Weather Adaptive Response Energy (AWARE) system developed at the university. The tool uses a computer interface to view and analyze energy consumption and allow homeowners to alter behaviors to conserve; it also uses weather forecasts to automatically simulate and select optimal operations.

Proprietary technologies such as this were just some of the many ways the students were able to put education into practice. “There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge in drawing, but a tremendous amount of knowledge and improvements when you do the construction,” says architectural team leader Gregory Luhan. “It’s no longer just one answer; it’s finding possible solutions and making it happen.”

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.

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