Among the toughest challenges faced by the academic teams participating in the Solar Decathlon is to build a house that not only performs well during the competition but is marketable after the competition. Basically, these teams are research-and-development juggernauts whose products – energy efficient homes of 800 sq. ft. or less that can be dissembled, transported, and reassembled – ideally will attract buyers after they leave the competition site on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
The University of Minnesota’s Solar Decathlon entry – which earned fifth place out of 20 in the 2009 competition, the school’s first Decathlon contest – did almost everything it was intended to do, except find a buyer.
Called ICON Solar House, the 550-sq.-ft. structure, with its slightly shifted, gabled roofline, echoes the architectural vocabulary of many homes in Minnesota. Most of the roof is covered with solar panels, and the house features a well-insulated shell, with R-50 exterior walls and an R-70 roof. It is, basically, a very nicely realized prototype that is now sitting across the street from the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis as part of a museum exhibit called “Sustainable Shelter,” a building technology showcase on display through May 15.
Bells, whistles, but a high price
Inclusion in the Bell exhibit, the project’s principals and supporters hope, will stimulate buyer interest in the house, which cost $1 million to develop and build. A recent Minnesota Public Radio story on the tribulations of the ICON sales effort notes that, apart from design and development expenses, about $550,000 of materials and labor has gone into the house, which was put up for auction some time ago with a $200,000 minimum bid.
Even though a few prospective buyers expressed interest in the house, a few deal killers intervened, the main ones being cost and inconvenience. Even if a bid of, say, $200,000 (i.e., a base price of about $365 per square foot, including a $20,000 moving credit) had been accepted, the buyer would have to pay for a least a portion of ICON’s transport and reassembly, in addition to land costs, site preparation, permits, and other expenses. In the current housing market, it’s a lot of money for a very small albeit high-performing building.
ICON project managers, however, say that the home’s inclusion in the “Sustainable Shelter” exhibit could significantly boost its sales prospects. When the house went up for bid, the MPR story points out, ICON’s five principal pieces were still in storage in a university warehouse, leaving prospective bidders to tour the house virtually, via small models and videos. Project manager Ann Johnson told MPR that while the virtual tours may be informative, they are still too abstract for people trying to understand what it’s really like to occupy the building and see how it operates.
“People need that physicality,” Johnson said, “to get the whole experience.”