UK’s S.KYBlue Solar House

(Photos by Greg Luhan)

I recently had a great tour of UK’s solar house, S.KY Blue.  Our friends Greg Luhan and Dave Melanson were kind enough to take me through the whole thing – from  conceptual planning to construction details.  The entire project is just such an absolutely great story for the folks involved, for the University, and for Lexington as a whole.

This proves that we are capable of engaging a diversity of people for the sake of addressing the most pressing issue of our time:  energy.  So many disciplines were involved with the creation of the house, from the College of Design to the College of Agriculture.  This is symbolic for both the University and the city that we have the brainpower to move ourselves creatively into a clean energy future. (Of course, I’m sure the “friends of coal” probably hate that this marvelous abode is parked right on the front lawn of the campus, figuratively giving the finger to the “lovers of destruction”….) Later this summer the house will be moved to the Kentucky Horse Park where it will be the official Lexington Welcome Center.  (Again, if coal was such a good symbol of who are are and what we stand for, why put this house out there?)

The inside of the solar house is only 540 square feet, but students and faculty were able to include a bedroom, bathroom, office space, full sized washer and dryer, kitchen, and a combined living and dining room. Despite the size, the house has it all:  gobs of solar generated power – the air conditioning was cranking the day I was there –  huge energy efficiencies, local materials, superb craftsmanship, intriguing design, micro-food production….all so well and deeply thought out.   The house is ADA compliant (sorry bout that Rand), light-filled and cozy, tells stories with its materials and functionality (the Shaker inspired chairs are wonderful), has the right dose of Feng Shui, reuses water wisely, and just feels right in every detail.  That’s why it won 2nd Place in the People’s Choice Awards at the Solar Decathlon in D.C. last fall.  Overall, the house placed 9th – a fantastic showing.

Energy wise, this house is a producer, not a consumer.  Taking this theory further, over time we can create a distributed grid where entire neighborhoods share the clean energy they produce.  (Wait a minute:  that sounds like socialism.  I know that real Americans prefer paying gobs of money to companies that destroy the environment.  Yep.  This whole “sharing the bounty” thing smells way too pinko for most of us.)  Seriously, that will be our future: we will share the energy that our houses generate.

Watch this video to see the electric meter running backward – sending power OUT to the grid…I wish my meter would do that!

My only challenge to the designers – and the rest of us – is this:  how do we take all this and retrofit existing structures.  We’ve seen proof of concept.  We know that you can run a modern house on solar power.  Now, how do we do it with existing buildings?

Great Job Greg, and congratulations to the entire Sky Blue House team! I definitely recommend a site tour – or virtually tour the house here:

Read some stories about the house here:

SKY Blue Solar House open for tours

April 13, 2010 by Kentucky Kernel News Staff ·

On the front lawn of the main building, UK’s solar house sits in perfect position for maximum exposure to the sun. Photo by William Baldon | Staff

By Ashley Beckham

After planning, construction, competition and success, the UK solar house is opening to let students come in and have a look around.

The UK solar house, currently located on the lawn by the Main Building, was built by a team of students from the colleges of Agriculture, Design, Engineering and Communications. The house placed 9th in the U.S. Department of Energy’s fourth biannual Solar Decathlon, and is now inviting students to tour the house and see what made it a successful venture.

The solar house competed with 20 other universities worldwide. The man-made structure combined with natural energy sources is described as being “eclectic and syncretistic, historic and modern.” The team was led by controlled environment systems professor Don Colliver and architecture associate professor Greg Luhan.

Architecture graduate student Ross Graham worked on the solar house, and said being environmentally-friendly was the main goal.

“The team wanted the solar house to work towards reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuel and other nonrenewable resources,” Graham said.

The planning process lasted a year and a half, but the area of difficulty was communicating the process in a unified way between the several colleges, Graham said.

“It took four months to build, but around a year and a half to plan and work on from beginning to end,” Graham said. “The biggest challenge was working with all the different areas of the combined teams, but in the end it made a great mix.”

Luhan said the everyday interaction between the students let them experience the challenges that each individual discipline faced.

“They learned the exchange of everyday life between careers, in a course by course setting,” he said. “The process was designing, building and fabricating a research-driven project.”

The team transported the house to the National Mall in Washington, where it was placed in 10 judged events during the 10-day period. The house was judged on whether or not it was a realistically livable environment, and whether or not it was a net-zero house, meaning the house had to use energy derived from the sun, wind and other energy-efficient tools the team created.

Luhan said students are encouraged to come and see what possibilities exist in the realm of solar energy, especially one created by fellow students.

“It was done by Kentucky’s students, it can be viewed as a one-on-one basis type project. Prospective students can get a concept of impact,” Luhan said. “It is a prototype of living students can and are continuing to learn from.”

The SKY Blue solar house is located on the lawn behind the Main Building on Administration Drive. The solar house is open for tours on Mondays from 10:00 a.m. to noon. Private tours are also available by contacting Luhan at, and more tours will be available around Earth Day on April 22. To take a virtual tour online, visit at

University of Kentucky’s Blue House

Shaker-inspired design and products promote simple living in Kentucky’s Solar Decathlon house.

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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4 responses to “UK’s S.KYBlue Solar House

  1. Aaron German

    Nice piece, Steve. It’s always nice to read some good news.

    • steveaustinlex

      thanks for reading Aaron – there is lots of good news….we just always have to be mindful of the larger context

  2. Pingback: Your Garden

  3. Pingback: The Dunlap Cabinetmakers: A Tradition in Craftsmanship | Woodwork Project

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