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Posted on Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 9:08 a.m.

MiSo Solar House at Matthaei Botanical Gardens Looks to the Future

By Janet Miller


The futuristic looking MiSo (Michigan Solar) house on display at Matthaei Botanical Gardens has an aluminum skin and is wrapped in solar panels. It produces more energy than it uses.

Janet Miller | For

The house that sits behind the conservatory at Matthaei Botanical Gardens has all the trappings of a modern home: Stainless steel appliances, pendant lights, a mudroom at the front entrance and breakfast bar for informal eating that separates the kitchen from the dining room.

But with an aluminum skin that reflects the last rays of summer, a blanket of solar panels that wraps the exterior, a curved ceiling that distributes light evenly and two yellow doors that stand like sentinels, this modular concept house is anything but typical.


The curved ceiling distributes light evenly inside the MiSo (Michigan Solar) house on display at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

Janet Miller | For

It produces more energy than it uses, is made from earth-friendly materials and could someday be mass marketed to young professionals or seniors on the go, said Harry Giles, professor of architecture at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.

While modular houses have a bad reputation - many are made from cheap and toxic materials, have short life spans and bleed energy - this house is different. It is durable (Giles calls it an heirloom home), made of green materials and produces rather than uses energy.

At first the work of an interdisciplinary team of architecture students and faculty from for the 2005 Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C., the MiSo (Michigan Solar) house has become a laboratory and testament to the future, said Giles. The results of its energy production and use will be published, he said.

MiSo, opened to public inspection this summer, is being used as a full-scale laboratory to measure how much energy can be produced and how much energy it takes to operate, Giles said. The house has been producing six kilowatts of energy, he said, “enough to run an average household.”

The 30 solar panels produce the energy and batteries stowed below MiSo for sunless days. Eventually, the surplus energy will be returned to the electrical grid, Giles said.

In its 650 square feet, MiSo packs a living room, a kitchen and dining room, a mudroom with wooden bench, a bathroom and laundry room and a bedroom. With its clean lines, lack of clutter and streams of sunlight, the house has a modern look and feel. There are the tile floors, glass and steel dining room chairs and a curved ceiling that runs the length of the house.


The kitchen and dining room of the MiSo (Michigan Solar) house on display at Matthaei Botanical Gardens.

Janet Miller | For

The solar panels collect enough energy to heat, cool and power the house while an evacuated tube system heats up to 60 gallons of water a day at 140 degrees, Giles said.

MiSo represents housing of the future, Giles said. It not only has net-zero energy consumption, it’s made of sustainable and low-chemically volatile materials: Aluminum is durable and recyclable, and future homes can easily be made from recycled aluminum, Giles said. Think beer and soda pop cans. Kitchen and bath cabinets are made from sunflower board and ash.

It’s easily portable and can be hauled from one location to another as young professionals or wandering Baby Movers are on the go.

“Originally, we were looking at the young market, at up-and-coming professionals who were looking to buy a piece of land and put a house on it. MiSo would make a statement about them and their attitude toward life,” Giles said.

But there may be a broader audience. By adding modules, MiSo can be expanded into a two-bedroom house with 950 square feet.

It’s capable of mass production, Giles said. The idea is to someday find financial backing. Giles figures a production line system could make a MiSo house for $130,000.

Giles is also looking at multiple-family housing of the future.

MidMod, Midrise Modern Modular, is a new genre of affordable medium-density housing. He received a National Science Foundation Partnership for Advancing Technologies in Housing Grant to research innovative modular housing design for low energy, prefabricated, low-rise low-income housing units that could repopulate urban areas. A prototype is under construction inside a U-M lab and it will be open to public viewing next year, Giles said.

MiSo will be open to the public this fall. The dates will be posted on the botanical gardens Web site at when they become available.



Sun, Sep 27, 2009 : 2:15 p.m.

My comment days later, especially after reading above post: Amazing! I look forward to seeing it.


Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 8:31 p.m.

I've been around it and through it. Seriously, this thing is not a house where people physically "live" and raise a "family". Its industrial design is virtually the inverse of home, featuring every over-blown, over-priced, eco-hysteric fad in one sterile package. Even the tiny, exposed partial board cabinetry is discolored and crumbling and as bad an idea here as anywhere else. The windows are poorly placed to actually see outside..the message is clearly that human environmental comfort is secondary to the need to squeeze every photon from the sun in order to juice out small, useless amounts of power. Still sound like a nice place to live? Beyond its poor sense of place, do you think easily impressed visitors will be invited to read about it's "science"?..about the solar panels return on investment? How much power does it produce vs the cost of those aging panels cost? Will there be a discussion about the fall-off in what little power they do produce as they age? Chances are the facts of this tin can will not be part of the exhibit. As with most eco science, even as a lab I predict its obvious failures will go unmentioned to the public.


Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 3:48 p.m.

I heard people kept trying to break - there were can opener marks all over it...


Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 12:53 p.m.

Very cool - I would consider buying one.


Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 11:12 a.m.

I like this house. Good story.


Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 11:01 a.m.

This is great. I look forward to seeing this house. On a larger scale, what needs to happen is mainstream builders need to do A LOT more to incorporate green, energy-efficient technologies into homes as a regular practice. The traditional way of building homes results in energy wasting, drafty homes loaded with unhealthy materials and a lot of waste going to the landfills. For example, using a combination of geothermal and solar power generation, a home can be built that uses a fraction of the fossil fuels a conventionally built home uses. I think we CAN build better homes for both the environment and people who live in them that are still affordable.

Chassy Cleland

Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 10:24 a.m.

I want one! I hope this venture is more successful than Bucky Fuller's Dymaxion House.


Thu, Sep 24, 2009 : 8:13 a.m.

Amazing! I look forward to seeing it.