Solar Decathlon

L-R: Empowerhouse, Solar Roofpod, eNJoy House

Every two years, 20 interdisciplinary teams of college students from all over the world converge on the National Mall in Washington, DC to showcase their entries in the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. Part design competition, part educational program and part workforce-development strategy, the Decathlon challenges each team to design, build and operate a solar-powered, single-family house. Student participants get valuable hands-on experience, exposure to new materials and technologies, the freedom to experiment with new ways of building and a chance to help inform the broader public about opportunities offered by energy-efficient construction, products and technology.

Houses are judged by ten metrics: Architecture, Market Appeal, Engineering, Communications and Affordability are judged by experts in their respective fields; Comfort Zone, Hot Water, Appliances, Home Entertainment and Energy Balance are measured through point-earning task completion and performance monitoring. In other words, success is determined not only by design quality, engineering, affordability and feasibility, but also by each team’s ability to educate and engage the public about and with their work. To help teams do this, the DOE has organized a series of workshops (for industry professionals, consumers and the visiting public), house tours, and even team-hosted dinner parties and movie nights. Teams spend nearly two years preparing for the competition, designing and building their prototype houses locally, before they disassemble, ship and reassemble the final project in DC for the formal judging.

The 2011 Solar Decathlon will take over the National Mall from September 23 through October 2. Colleges and universities from around the globe are represented — including Tonji University in China, Ghent University in Belgium, and Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand — but the majority of teams hail from the US. This year, three of the 20 teams are from right here in the New York metropolitan area: Team New York, Team New Jersey and Team Parsons/Milano/Stevens.

In an effort to learn more about our local decathletes and their designs, we spoke to representatives from each team as they prepare for the big event: Christian Volkmann, the program manager of Team New York (City College of New York); Richard Garber, a faculty advisor and architect of record for Team New Jersey (New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey); and Laura Briggs, the faculty lead for Team Parsons/Milano/Stevens (Parsons The New School for Design, The Milano School for International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy at The New School and Stevens Institute of Technology).

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Rooftops of buildings in cities are largely underutilized, yet they offer true potential as living spaces because of their direct access to sun, wind and water. Team New York designed the Solar Roofpod to integrate with flat rooftops of existing mid-rise residential or commercial buildings, enabling eco-conscious urban dwellers to live sustainably as stewards of a more resilient urban environment.

As architecture and engineering students, we are the future custodians of New York City.Our goal is to directly benefit not only pod dwellers, but also those living in the buildings beneath. We calculate that, compared to a conventional NYC apartment, a single pod could generate over $2,500 in annual utilities savings while avoiding the generation of over 4,000 kg of CO2. Extend this concept exponentially to an entire city — to every urban environment on the planet — and we believe the gains could be significant.

We want the Roofpod to be more than just a house, more than an energy source or a garden. It is a piece of urban infrastructure, part of an integrated system that simultaneously addresses the challenges of electrical energy production, heating and cooling, stormwater retention, heat island effect, urban wildlife habitat and carbon sequestration with biomass. Collectively, Solar Roofpods, green roofs and rooftop photovoltaic (PV) arrays can form a new layer of resilient urban infrastructure.

Rough construction of our prototype Roofpod is almost finished. Plumbing, electrical and HVAC systems are already installed. We adopted a modular yet customizable approach to assembly, to reduce on-site construction time, mitigate disturbances to inhabitants and neighbors, and allow for sizable economies of scale when numerous Roofpods are fabricated and installed.


Solar Roofpod exploded axonometric | Courtesy of Team New York/CCNY

Solar Roofpod exploded axonometric | Courtesy of Team New York/CCNY

The Roofpod will look like a one-story penthouse structure. The Envelope is comprised of 64 poplar wood-framed, customizable “building blocks,” clad with opaque, transparent and louvered glazed curtain wall; a steel beam Dunnage Garden, irrigated with stormwater and greywater, distributes the load evenly to the host structure beneath and provides urban biomass and wildlife habitat; and a Solar Trellis, installed on the pod’s roof, is the pod’s primary energy source. Inside, living spaces flow around a central core, which contains all the functional amenities of the house: mechanical room, bathroom, kitchen appliances, home entertainment, a tilt-up bed and storage closets.

The Roofpod is engineered as a “smart house” rather than a “passive house.” Accordingly, we incorporated a number of active systems to regulate and control the lighting, HVAC, water systems and appliances. Sensors collect lighting, heating and cooling performance data and assemble it in a logger system. A next-generation graphic digital display allows inhabitants to be aware of the Roofpod’s minute-to-minute performance, encourages energy-conscientiousness and may assist the city with peak load management.

This generation of students will be tomorrow’s decision-makers for green policy development, education and the professions of architecture and engineering. Participating in the Solar Decathlon, particularly in the presentation activities scheduled for DC, allows the students to be true representatives of this development, now and for the future. We want this project to inspire future generations of students as well. So, with that in mind, we are working to find a permanent home for the prototype Roofpod after the competition. It will either return to the City College campus in West Harlem to be used as a visitor center and classroom for sustainability education, or it will be installed at CUNY’s planned Maritime Education Center, on Pier 26 in TriBeCa, along the Hudson River.

Our students said it best: “As architecture and engineering students, we are the future custodians of New York City. Many of us in Team New York came here as immigrants from all over the world; we see tremendous potential to enhance our diverse and vibrant global city through innovative design.”

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From the beginning, Team Empowerhouse wanted to take the Solar Decathlon beyond the Washington Mall. We felt it was important to create an urban response to the competition brief and to foster local DC relationships. We established a partnership with the Washington, DC branch of Habitat for Humanity and the DC Department of Housing and Community Development — the first time that a Decathlon team has collaborated with these civic and government agencies at the outset — to create a two-family home for residents of the DC neighborhood of Deanwood.


The Empowerhouse site, Deanwood | Courtesy of Team Parsons/Milano/Stevens

The Empowerhouse site, Deanwood

Deanwood, a primarily African-American community, is in one of the greenest wards in Washington, DC and has a long history of community activism. Today, the area is undergoing a powerful revitalization, with economic development and environmental sustainability as key components of the resurgence. Since spring 2010, members of our team have met with community stakeholders and residents to better understand the community, their needs and what design aspects they value most. The reality of the place and people has nurtured our students’ thinking and helps them see the project as more than just a technological box.

Site orientation drives the overall form of the home. The Empowerhouse is elongated on its north-south axis with street-facing front porches and main entrances on its north façade; living spaces situated in the southern, more private sections of the home; and back porches that open onto private backyards. After the conclusion of the competition, when it is reconstructed in Deanwood, the house will be expanded into a two-family home, each with three bedrooms and two bathrooms on two levels and a rooftop terrace with planters for growing vegetables.

We are now in the midst of building our exhibition house. The house is primarily constructed of engineered wood, a renewable material that provides maximum stability while keeping material consumption low and the structure lightweight. We are using prefabricated panels to minimize labor and construction costs, and digital modeling and fabrication technologies to increase efficiency and accuracy. All energy needs for the Empowerhouse will be provided by a photovoltaic (PV) array on the roof (one of the smallest arrays you will see on the Mall), and blown-in cellulose insulation will provide thermal properties that adhere to Passive House principles, today’s highest energy standard.

The team wants to encourage more flexibility in future policy, to help DC implement these technologies and adopt sustainability standards on a broader level.We want to provide Empowerhouse residents with the ability to produce all of their energy, reduce their water usage and grow their own food. The house will consume up to 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a typical home, and will achieve net zero energy consumption. Sensors for heat, lighting and air quality will log performance data and be visible through a web platform. As opposed to “smart home” controls, which anticipate homeowners’ needs, we implemented a “smart homeowner” system, which provides information and feedback to the residents.

The project does not stop with the house. Our team is working hard to engage with the community, leading workshops for residents and connecting with community associations and neighborhood infrastructures. The team has also established working relationships with several DC agencies — the District Department of Transportation, the District Department of the Environment and the DC Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs through the DC Ambassador Program — to encourage more flexibility in future policy, to help the District implement these emerging technologies in the green building field and adopt sustainability standards on a broader level.

The fact that the Solar Decathlon requires students to not just imagine but realize solar and sustainable technologies is a great advantage. The students are learning, in a hands-on way, how the next generation of buildings will be designed and constructed, and will leave school with the skills needed to make a difference within their disciplines. Our team has worked with over 200 graduate and undergraduate students in fashion design, product design, management, communication design and technology, as well as architecture, engineering and urban policy. The project is a catalyst for faculty, administrators and students to embrace sustainability as a completely interdisciplinary matter.

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For Team New Jersey’s 2011 Solar Decathlon entry, we want to integrate passive design strategies, new solar technologies and contemporary architectural ideas to create a new paradigm for the single-family home — the eNJoy House.

I am convinced that this house could be both customizable and affordable to the public. Its value as an introduction to sustainable, high-performance design is crucial.The architecture students from NJIT and the engineering students from Rutgers have been working together since January 2010. Since the fall, we have had the opportunity to work with a variety of professional and industry partners, including Arup (the engineer of record), Northeast Precast (who has worked with us on the design and is fabricating all of our precast panels), Skanska (our general contractor), and Petra Solar (who are supplying the photovoltaic panels). The students have been to each of their facilities and for the last 6 weeks have been working at Northeast Precast, literally forming and pouring the 36 or so unique concrete panels that will make up the house. The use of digital and fabrication technologies and access to the extensive knowledge base of our partnering companies have afforded the students experiences they generally wouldn’t get in an undergraduate architectural education.

One of our primary goals has been to revolutionize the image of high efficiency housing by giving it a new aesthetic. We are working with precast, insulated, concrete panels — a material solution seldom considered for use in conventional single-family homes — in all roof, wall and floor assemblies. The high thermal mass properties of this concrete contribute to the passive control of the space’s climate. (We are striving to achieve self-sufficiency, net zero energy use and minimal environmental impact for all of the electrical, mechanical and plumbing systems in the eNJoy House.) The use of modular components allows for a faster construction process, thereby reducing labor costs.


Team New Jersey, February 2011 | Courtesy of Team NJ

Team New Jersey, February 2011

With the interior, we wanted to highlight the concrete’s essence while still creating a relaxed atmosphere. We kept the circulation simple by centering the core, giving the house a sense of freedom. By using Panelite and lighter materials as accents, we can lend color, translucency and tactility to the space. While design quality, engineering, and affordability – as well as things like location – all are important factors in considering the type of space one lives in, overtime these become secondary to the experiences one is able to enjoy. I think we have very consciously designed the house for these experiences, taking into account ideas like universal design, and have attempted to match our performance and aesthetic goals to them.

Portability and ease of assembly/disassembly are constraints that had to play a significant role in our design — the eNJoy house will be built in New Jersey, dismantled, shipped to DC and then reassembled in only 24 hours for the competition. It will then be disassembled and moved again to its final home.

We felt it was important to consider the house’s post-competition fate because of the educational potential it carries. A few months ago, we made the decision that the house should not be lived in, as it will have greater educational value as a demonstration structure on a visible, accessible site in New Jersey. (We will decide on the specific post-competition site by the beginning of August.) After spending 18 months on design and construction it is, on one hand, strange to conclude that the house should never be “lived” in, but I am convinced that, at a slightly larger scale, such a house could be both customizable and affordable to the public, so its value as an introduction to sustainable, high-performance design is crucial.

As of last weekend, the house is being constructed in a parking lot on the NJIT campus in Newark. It should be completed in about 3 weeks, at which point it will stay on campus and will be accessible for tours through late August.

Christian Volkmann is Associate Professor of Architecture at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at the City College of New York, focusing on the integration of technical and environmental topics into the design process. He is part of the joint faculty for the newly launched “Sustainability in the Urban Environment” Masters program, combining Science, Engineering and Architecture.

Laura Briggs is a Chair of Sustainable Architecture Research at Parsons The New School for Design where teaches courses on ecological design and is the faculty lead for the school’s 2011 entry into the Solar Decathlon. She has taught architecture studio and construction technology at University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University and at University of Michigan as the Mushenheim Fellow. Laura is a partner with BriggsKnowles Studio in New York City, a practice recognized for its use of light, color and the integration of energy efficient and renewable energy technology. She holds a Masters Degree from Columbia University’s Advanced Architectural Design Program and a Bachelor of Architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Richard Garber, AIA, is a principal of GRO Architects and an associate professor at NJIT’s New Jersey School of Architecture, where he teaches design studios and directs the school’s FABLAB, a unique design and manufacturing laboratory. His work uses computer simulation and computer numerically-controlled hardware to generate innovative design, construction, and assembly solutions. He holds architecture degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Columbia University.

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.