Innovative ‘Meltwater’ a model for reducing energy

An energy-efficient and solar-powered house built by University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee students and professors was displayed for public viewing over the weekend at the Milwaukee/National Association of the Remodeling Industry convention.

The 775-square-foot “Meltwater” was open for tours at the convention held in the Wisconsin Expo Center. Students and professors involved in the project were on hand to explain the green technology the house employs.

“Obviously our main approach in building the house was to reduce the need for energy,” said Greg Thomson, an assistant professor of architecture at UW-Milwaukee. “But the design of the house was also inspired by the local topography and built with as many local resources as we could use.”

Thomson said the house was dubbed “Meltwater” as an homage to glaciers that melted and created the Great Lakes. The design of the roof and siding resemble the regional landscape after glaciers carved through the Earth’s surface.

The house was built as an entry to the 2009 Solar Decathlon competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition involves 20 university teams who vied to construct the most energy-efficient and marketable solar-powered house.

According to Thomson, it took nearly two years for 150 students and professors to design and construct the house.

“I really wanted to get involved in a sustainable project,” said Jason Stuewe, a UWM student who worked on the house for most of the two years. “It helped me understand energy and green marketing.”

Stuewe said contest size restrictions forced the group to find new ways to efficiently utilize small spaces. For example, the dining table named “Moraine” can fold into the wall, opening up space. “Berg,” the entertainment cabinet that doubles as a wardrobe, can be pushed apart and positioned in a variety of ways.

The materials that compose the house reflect the green nature of the structure. The countertops are made of “Paperstone,” a highly sustainable surface made by heating and compressing recycled paper and cashew nut oil. Stuewe said Paperstone is a better option than expensive and brittle granite, because any scratches or marks can easily be sanded out.

Cabinets are made of bamboo, which can be planted and harvested within six years. Thomson said Wisconsin-based Aldo Leopold Foundation, who uses sustainable harvesting procedures to protect forests, provided lumber.

Other features of the house include: high-performance triple-pane windows that prevent heat loss, extra insulation and “Rainscreen” siding that stops more water than regular siding from penetrating the house’s exterior.

Meltwater has been through an arduous journey since its completion. The house was constructed on UWM’s campus, taken down and transported to Washington, D.C., for the contest and put back together.

After the competition it was deconstructed and sent back to Wisconsin for the Milwaukee/NARI show and rebuilt. This isn’t the last stop for the travel-weary abode; it still has to be moved to Washington Park where it will be placed permanently, Thomson said.