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'GRoW House' lands UB a spot in national Solar Decathlon

by jmaloni

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Mon, Feb 17th 2014 09:10 am
A rendering shows the solar-powered `GRoW House,` whose features include a 649-square-foot greenhouse where home gardeners can grow vegetables in any weather. (credit: Ned Schelleng, produced in a design studio led by Brad Wales)
A rendering shows the solar-powered "GRoW House," whose features include a 649-square-foot greenhouse where home gardeners can grow vegetables in any weather. (credit: Ned Schelleng, produced in a design studio led by Brad Wales)

Team will build a solar-powered house that will have a permanent home in Buffalo

by Charlotte Hsu

University at Buffalo students and professors will build a 1,400-square-foot solar-powered home as finalists in the U.S. Department of Energy's elite Solar Decathlon competition.

Playfully called the "GRoW House," the UB project is designed to appeal to Buffalo's urban gardening contingent. The dwelling will have space where residents can garden, relax or work (GRoW). Features include a generous greenhouse and kitchen for growing, processing, cooking and storing food.

The Solar Decathlon is a national, two-year contest that challenges collegiate teams to design, construct and operate cost-effective solar dwellings.

The Department of Energy announced Thursday afternoon UB was one of 20 schools selected to participate.

In the decathlon, which will take place in Irvine in 2015, each entry will be evaluated in 10 contests, ranging from architecture and engineering to home appliance performance. Each decathlon draws tens of thousands of visitors from across the country.

The GRoW House will be built in Western New York, shipped to Irvine, Calif., for judging, then returned to Buffalo. Possible permanent locations for the home include the city's fruit belt, west side or waterfront neighborhoods.

Ultimately, organizers hope the GRoW House will become a community resource, open for tours that educate and inspire schoolchildren and the public about the benefits of sustainable, low-energy design.

"There's an untapped potential in Buffalo to do interesting and provocative sustainable design," said Martha Bohm, UB assistant professor of architecture, who worked on two Solar Decathlon projects as a Cornell University faculty member before joining UB. "Sometimes, to get things moving, you need a project that captures people's imaginations - something people can experience firsthand."

The GRoW House is being developed under the leadership of Bohm and clinical assistant professor of architecture Brad Wales, working with department chair Omar Khan.

Plans for the home - designed by UB students in studios and seminars - call for three main spaces:

•The Garden Box. This 649-square-foot greenhouse has ample room for the home gardener to grow vegetables in any weather. Sun will heat this space in colder months and generate electricity year-round via translucent solar panels integrated with the glass roof. 

•The Relax Box. This small, super-insulated room includes bedroom and ad hoc office space opening onto a private patio area. It's perfect for Buffalo: snug in the winter, but with easy access to the outdoors - to fresh air and blue sky - in summer. 

•The Work Box. Connected to the Garden Box, the Work Box is a substantial kitchen where home gardeners can wash, can and store food. This space shares key features with the Relax Box, such as thick walls and concrete floors, all of which will help moderate interior temperatures year-round. Rooftop solar panels and a system for catching and storing rain will provide energy and water.

The project is led by the School of Architecture and Planning, but students and faculty from across UB will form an integrated team. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will lend its expertise to design and construction, and the School of Management will develop marketing and communications strategies for promoting the GRoW House to the public. 

So far, more than 40 students have taken architecture studios and seminars devoted to the Solar Decathlon. Many more are expected to contribute by the project's end.

Support from the business community has been pledged by Montante Solar, Watts Engineers and Architects, Buffalo Geothermal and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the UB team's primary partner. Materials and mentorship will come from corporate donors, and the U.S. Department of Energy will supply seed funding. The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry will collaborate on the design of the house's site.

Team members calculate the GRoW House will generate electricity in excess of what residents need for regular activities. Despite Buffalo's long winters, the region actually does get enough sunlight to make solar an effective option for powering homes, project leaders say.

"I designed a passive solar house in East Aurora that works very well - not quite net zero, but the design cut heating costs by 75 percent," Wales said. "Fossil fuels are expensive, and their consumption generally degrades the environment."

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