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UB students star in green home design

Students from Univeristy at Buffalo's architectural program are among the finalists of the Solar Decathlon.

kc kratt


With green design an increasingly important component of new building, it’s no surprise that it’s also an integral part of architectural programs, including the one at University at Buffalo. Current students there are top ten finalists in Solar Decathlon, an international green home design competition, sponsored biennially by the US Department of Energy. The UB team’s solar-powered, flexibly styled, and sustainably built GRoW (Garden, Relax, or Work) House was constructed over the past year inside a Tonawanda warehouse, in space donated by Montante Solar, a corporate sponsor along with L.P. Ciminelli.  Late this summer, the house was disassembled and trucked in parts across the country to Irvine, California, the site of the finals judging. There, it was then reconfigured as a living space, complete with organic garden. A winner will be chosen in October, but as far as the UB team is concerned, the whole process—a first-time effort for the Buffalo students— has been a winning enterprise.  

“It’s just been a very eye-opening experience,” says Joe Tuberdyck, a recent UB Master’s in Architecture graduate who has served as construction manager.  “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is the importance of collaboration and coordination between students, faculty, and professionals assisting on this project.”

Tuberdyck, an East Aurora native, is one of more than 160 students from fourteen different departments, sophomores to doctoral candidates, who’ve taken part in this two-year-long venture, according to UB Assistant Professor of Architecture Martha Bohm, who’s acted as studio instructor alongside a number of other faculty members.  

Among alumni participants is Williamsville builder Richard Bergman, whose Heartland Homes feature green design, and, who, when asked to donate early on, said he would be happy to if he could be involved. Since then, he’s taught a little building science to the students and also secured donations and discounts from his own vendors. “I put my first solar panels up back in the 1970s on my then-home in Buffalo. It was a passion for me way before it became part of my business,” Bergman says. “Saving energy is very important to me and to the world. For the students, this project is so rewarding—learning hands-on, creating, building is a dream come true.”

The evolution of the GRoW House and the contest parameters foster a real-world understanding of design and lifestyle issues, explains Bohm. Two years of planning, fundraising (with $50,000 of seed money from the Department of Education when UB passed the first round and was accepted as a participant), and classwork around the project were all based on the idea that the house is built for and run “as if a typical family lived there”—in this case, an active urban gardening couple. 

More than a sterile house design, this project is presented as an actual home where a family cooks dinner (with food from its own garden—the innovative “growlarium” combines elements of a greenhouse and solarium) and uses energy responsibly (with appliances and systems keyed and calibrated for maximum efficiency). It is geographically appropriate—the UB team has created a Buffalo house, with design elements and features embracing this particular climate, and orientation to the sun that is specific on a daily basis as well as seasonally.  Hand-built windows have operable ventilators, so air can be let in without opening the entire window.  A canopy serves as a flexible roof.

Contest judging is extremely detailed. The house is evaluated over a ten-day period, with five categories—architecture, engineering, market appeal, communications, and affordability—assessed by five different juries comprising professionals in those respective fields. There are also five measured contests, including Commuting, based on the costs of an electric car driven a certain number of miles, and Appliances, which tracks energy consumption—dishwasher, fridge, washer, and dryer must all be kept within certain ranges.

In the category of Homelife Tasks, the resident family must host two dinner parties that include preparation, serving, and clean-up. Minimal energy should be used, and menus should be based on foods available in Buffalo, and must include some homegrown produce. The UB team may have an advantage here, according to Martha Bohm, who shares that “One of our engineering students is a professionally-trained chef.” GRoW dinner party menus, which are submitted to the judges in advance, feature jerk pork tenderloin with mango salsa and snow peas, as well as lacquered salmon with micro greens and Asian vinaigrette, and lemongrass-infused herbed couscous.

The last two measured categories of judging are Comfort Zone, which considers whether the home is kept at comfortable levels of temperature and humidity, and Energy Balance. All these variables are measured by sensors and instruments inserted into the home at the start of the contest, and which ensure objectivity, at least ostensibly. “Teams can protest a measurement. We also use our own sensors, with independent monitoring by our own energy management system,” Bohm says, explaining, “You need to produce more energy than you consume,” Bohm explains. “You must consume less than 175 kilowatt hours.”

What about factors beyond anyone’s control, like weather? One of the big ideas behind this whole project is that the home designs must be flexible enough to accommodate different climates. The UB GRoW House is designed for Buffalo, with thick walls for insulation, and shading that adjusts to let in sun at different times of day and in different seasons. Student researchers have determined that the temperature profile for July and August in Buffalo is close to that of September and October in Irvine, the final date and destination of the Solar Decathlon, so they have calibrated their systems to this model. In fact, the UB team is using the whole complicated undertaking as a not-so-subtle message to the world about their hometown.

“Buffalo is not just a cold place,” says Bohm. “It is amazing here in fall and spring, pretty nice in summer. We’ve designed a house that is a Buffalo home, and we are saying that you can have indoor/outdoor living here [with great design]. This has been a really good learning tool, producing viable ideas that are beautiful, but also solve problems. We want to be part of the new Buffalo, not just a legacy city, but a place where there are a lot of fresh ideas.” 

The whole structure may end up back on the UB campus after the contest is over—one possibility is to install it as a demonstration house for future students. Fundraising is ongoing, as total project costs are upwards of $960,000, including the expensive travel costs for the house and design team. The house itself cost $300,000, which included an unusual cost of some $15,000 for steel substructure to ensure safe transport, a multi-step process involving two flatbed trucks. In yet another learning piece, one of the student team members used 3-D modeling to pack the truck most efficiently.

Join us in wishing the team luck in October, and watch for updates about the contest in local news sources.  


Maria Scrivani is a frequent contributor to Buffalo Spree.

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