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From the moment Penn State's Solar Decathlon house comes into view, it's easy to see how it earned its "Natural Fusion" moniker. From the Pennsylvania-native plants that surround the footprint to the swath of opening glass walls to the greenery gracing the roof and interior and exterior walls, the team's effort to connect residents to nature is clear.

"We wanted to fuse the natural environment with the built environment," says team member Keith Holmes, a junior, noting particularly the home's four tri-fold doors that connect the indoor space to an expansive outdoor deck.

The 620-square-foot house, whose basic structure was built in a modular plant, boasts an open floor plan with abundant light and connections to the outdoors on five sides; materials and design touches further evoke a natural connection.

Like its 2007 entry, Penn State relied heavily on local materials. The Pennsylvania-grown black locust decking requires no chemicals to resist weather and insects; interior flooring is white oak reclaimed from a barn being torn down near campus; and trusses were manufactured with pine from a local FSC-certified forest. The bed frame was outfitted with the trunk of a fallen tree, while the headboard was handcrafted using chalkboards and wood from deconstructed campus buildings.

The most obvious natural touches are a series of "Life Wells," herbs and plants built into the wall of the kitchen and bathroom, and into the rear exterior wall; an overhead skylight nourishes plants growing out of pockets in the adjoining wall of the kitchen and bath.

Still, at-one with nature doesn't mean out-of-touch with technology. To maximize solar energy generation, the rooftop photovoltaic array boasts cylindrical collectors, which the team says allow for 360-degree collection of direct and indirect sunlight. Helping to maximize both the system and the space is a green roof on the north end, which reflects sunlight to the underside of the PVs while keeping the space underneath cooler.

Additional solar modules are built into awnings on the front, southern side, combining the passive benefits of summer shading with active, tracking solar collectors. The front façade also houses the project's flat-plate solar thermal system.

Among the home's efficiency features are a thermal mass of water bags under the floor to help maintain interior temperature; two ductless 26-SEER mini-split heat pumps; an energy recovery ventilator; and phase-change material in the walls and roof.

The estimated market price for the house is $288,000.

In hopes of showing the community and the world that solar can exist in everyday life, the Penn State team made the conscious decision to utilize products and technologies available and attainable to today's home buyers, says team leader Kyle Macht. "It's not research, it's an actual, livable home."

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.

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