House with Cylindrical Solar Panels and Ingenious Compact Design

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The University of Tennessee built a long, rectangular building for their net-zero entry into the 2011 Solar Decathlon.  The ingenuity of design can sometimes be subtle and easily overlooked in its seamless presentation. 

This house features ingenious design, seamless in its presentation. This house tied 1st for both ‘Energy Balance’, ‘Hot Water’ and received 3rd in ‘Engineering’.

Inspired by the cantilever barn from Tennessee’s Appalachian history, the long rectangular building features mechanical cores at both ends, with compact and multifunctional furniture within 740 square feet.  The home, called Living Light,  combines both active and passive solar systems to create an efficient, comfortable living space.


The cylindrical solar panels can harvest direct, indirect and reflecting solar energy.

This Solar Decathlon home is unique with its utilization of cylindrical photovoltaic (PV) panels that span and overlap the roof of the home.

The cylindrical shape of solar panel allows the home to harvest direct, indirect and reflecting solar rays in a more efficient manner than traditional flat panels.

They do not have to be angled, but can simply be placed on a horizontal surface.

The use of these efficient panels is helping the Tennessee team, currently in 4th place overall as I write this, as the first days of the 2011 Solar Decathlon have been overcast and cloudy with rain.

The cylindrical solar panels were manufactured by Solyndra, recently in the news for its bankruptcy filing.  Regardless of the company’s flawed economics or lack of business acumen, the panels, however, seemed to function quite well.

The solar panels overlapping the home act as an awning and help to block the higher rotating summer sun’s heat rays from heating up the house, while they allow the lower winter sun into the home to warm it.


The overhang can block the summer sun, but allows the winter sun to warm the house.  The diagram also shows how the air within the glass can help to warm or cool the home.


The beauty of having teams from different climates and locations has created a robust diversity within the different types of housing.


Black horizontal blinds are sandwiched between the panes of glass.

The long rectangular building has glass walls on both its long south and north facing sides of the home.

The windows are the fascinating part of this house and act to moderate the temperature of the house.

The windows are unique for a few different reasons.

There are black horizontal blinds between the panes of glass.  They are motorized and can be programmed to allow certain amounts of heat and light into the home throughout the year.  They also provide privacy – an important feature to have in a glass house.

An astute observer would recognize that this particular space would build up heat.

Windows, as a general rule, are looked upon as an aspect of a house that will loose energy.  This house, however, can harvest the heat energy between the window panes.


With the window open, the vents near the outer pane of the window can be seen.

The heat can be drawn out of the space and into a heat energy ventilator to supply the home with preheated air in the winter.  In the summer, the warmer air will be drawn out of the system to keep the home cool.

This photo was taken with the inner window open, looking down into the space.  The vents located at the bottom of the black shades work to ventilate the space.

Initially, my passive solar instincts balked at the notion of so many northern facing windows, however, the team from Tennessee lives in an area that does not get as cold as Colorado.

The home has utilized both translucent and transparent glass throughout the home. The outer window pane is made of a tempered R-1 glass while the inner pane of glass is an R-11 fixed suspended film glass.

The University of Tennessee received 3rd place in the category of Engineering.


A student explains the kitchen during one of the tours. Notice the iPad on the counter that can be used to control the home.

The house was narrow and long, with the kitchen on one side of the home and an entertainment center / bedroom and bathroom on the other side.

A view from one end of the house can initially be misleading simply because the home’s multifunctional aspects blend seamlessly from one function to the next – that the transition can be missed.

The wooden panels to the side of the sink and microwave can hide the area so that only the sleek wooden panels can be seen.  One might err to think that the kitchen was a forgotten aspect of this home.

It’s also a highly technological house that can easily be controlled.  The iPad located next to the sink can help to control different aspects of the home, from the overall temperature to the angle of the blinds.


One moment you’re in an entertainment / living room, the next moment, it has transformed into a bedroom.

At the other end of the home there was a living room with a couch and home entertainment center complete with a flat screen TV – and a partial bed that is peaking out.

The student was demonstrating the transition from the entertainment center, to a bedroom.

The cabinet that is showcasing the TV is also concealing both a bed and closets.

The bed is not simply a Murphy bed that folds upward into the wall (because that would obstruct the TV) but rather one that retracts behind the panel that supports the television.

The clothing closet noiselessly can be pushed into the cabinet to conceal the fact that a whole bedroom is concealed within and behind the cabinet – that appears to be (is also) the entertainment center.

The bathroom is located behind the bedroom / entertainment center.

The Photo Gallery

See the photo gallery and video below to learn more about the Living Light Solar Decathlon project from the University of Tennessee.

Click on a picture below to enter a slideshow of the photo gallery.  Use the arrows to navigate or click on the right hand side of the photo to progress to the next one.


This house achieved full points within the Energy Balance Category, achieving net-zero energy status.  They were third in the Engineering Contest and finished 9th overall.  Within the Affordability Category of the Solar Decathlon, Living Light was estimated to cost $470,000 and was the most expensive house in the contest.

The final scores for Tennessee in the 2011 Solar Decathlon.

The final scores for Tennessee’s house in the 2011 Solar Decathlon.


See the original model Living Light of the house that they first submitted to gain entrance to the Solar Decathlon.

The University of Tennessee Living Light Website

The 2011 Solar Decathlon Main Website



Keya Lea

Keya Lea likes to spend time outside, enjoying the sun.

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2 Responses

  1. James Rose says:

    Our windows are innovative in their incorporation of sun shading and ventilation, but it is exactly these features that make the home one of the best passive designs.

    The cavity in our double walled glass envelope acts as a south-facing greenhouse in the winter utilizing direct sunlight to drive heat gain up to 30 degrees above ambient. Once this air is heated it enters the living space where high efficiency heat pumps can raise the temperature further if need be. For example: if the exterior temperature is 30 degrees, the incoming air from the cavity will be 60 and the heat pumps only need to raise it another 10 degrees for comfort- a simply enormous savings of energy.

    As described above, this system functions similarly to a direct gain sun space with the important difference that our team was able to calculate that a 16 inch cavity with blinds was able to heat just as well as a room-size glazed volume. The real innovation is that we have the same double wall glass envelope on both sides of the house enabling us to channel our exhaust air stream through the north facade reducing heat loss. In summer we reverse the flow to draw in air on the shaded north and exhaust through the south reducing heat gain. This is not a hypothetical system- the house has existed for two winters now and continues to perform as designed. Remarkably, the insulating value of the transparent ventilated facade is equivalent to a 2×6 stud framed wall with fiberglass batts.

    For a clear visual representation of how this system functions please visit our website and, under the ‘smart systems tab’ go to ‘heating ventilation and air conditioning’. If you scroll to the bottom of this page there are a set of diagrams for the seasonal operating modes. Please note that sun angle and the horizontal extension of our roof mounted solar array play a major role modulating direct gain.

    Thank you again for including the University of Tennessee Living Light house and its double envelope in your article and continuing to bring attention to the great work of all of the student teams participating in the Solar Decathlon. As faculty advisor to our 2011 team I can attest to the effort, enthusiasm, and innovative problem solving that these students possess. I do hope that you consider our home for inclusion in the best passive solar category. From the earliest stages of the design process our team’s intent was to include solar thermal and solar electric, passive and active in one integrated system.

    • Keya Lea says:


      Thank you for your comments. The windows and features of the house were really impressive. It’s a beautiful space and I love the amount of light that the surrounding windows allow into the living space. I’m glad to hear that it has been continuing to function efficiently through the summers and winters.

      The only reason that it wasn’t included in the “Best of” is because of the nature and definition of passive solar. Ideally passive solar works without any additional influx of electrical energy, so devices that have motors or fans are not included in passive solar. Passive solar buildings are like the aikido of buildings. They are cool in the summer and warm in the winter because of their orientation and materials. I see that the overhang can block some of the summer sun, while allowing the winter sun to enter the house, but it does not seem to be stored in a totally passive solar manner.

      I do see that the house can be an efficient passive house, however, this site focuses on the passive solar aspect of houses, as opposed to just tight, ‘closed to the environment’ stance that passive houses often take.

      I agree that your students were really impressive. As I was asking questions and touring the house, one of your students took the time to draw a diagram of the airflow within the windows, and explained how it circulates throughout the house. He also explained that it took less energy because it took advantage of the temperature in the house, while leveraging the temperature in the windows.

      The team from the University of Tennessee really did a lovely job on the house. Thank you for creating such an efficient and sleek home.

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