One university's quest to revolutionize the built environment.

The Cutting Edge of Sustainable Home Design

Lon Huber

In a shaded outdoor workshop in Tucson, Arizona, dozens of students from The University of Arizona are working night and day on a home design that could transform the future home design. The Sustainable Energy Efficient Dwelling (SEED), dubbed SEED [pod], is a fully sustainable solar house that, when complete, will organically interact with the natural environment as a dynamic extension of sun and earth.

The SEED [pod] is one of only 20 finalists selected from around the globe to compete in the Solar Decathlon Competition, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The event will take place October 9th- 18th on the National Mall in Washington D.C.  A key motivation for the students spending their summer immersed in construction: defeat the previous champion, Technische Universität Darmstadt from Germany.  

This is the first year that the University of Arizona has been chosen to compete, but as newcomers to the competition, their drive and optimism are unflagging. They also have something even more powerful in their corner: the talent and innovation of the Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy (AzRISE), the cutting edge research institute for solar energy that was founded at the University of Arizona more than a year ago.  Another plus: they have the support of the University of Phoenix and a large group of regional companies, all of whom are helping enormously in a competition where the cost of building and delivering a house may range from $300,000 - $1,200,000.

The SEED [pod]

In nature, seedpods protect and nourish a seed during the initial growth stages of an embryonic plant. Like the biologic seedpod, the University of Arizona’s Solar Decathlon Team’s (UASDT) SEED [pod] is an embryonic vessel that fosters the propagation of geographically appropriate, solar powered and climatically effective housing strategies. Central to the innovation of the SEED [pod] is the many ways in which it borrows from the natural environment. In short, the house replicates strategies provided in nature to obtain and maintain a homeostatic environment. Minute changes in the external environment continually calibrate the SEED [pod] to maintain equilibrium in the constantly changing climate of Earth.

The teams’ design incorporates both passive and active strategies to reach homeostatic conditions. The passive strategies include natural ventilation strategies, efficient volume management, strategic placement of insulation, and shading strategies. Among the active strategies are efficient heating and cooling systems as well as electronically controlled ventilation shutters. In addition, the SEED [pod] will include all home essentials, such as energy- efficient appliances and innovative space-planning furniture systems. And finally, the home integrates a greenhouse as a biological filter for air and water that also provides food for the inhabitants.

Core and Interior Rendering

In keeping with the SEED [pod] concept, the core of the home acts as the provider for all the essentials of living. It contains the bathroom, kitchen, and workspace functions needed to live in a home of this size, freeing the rest of the floor plan for living and dining space. The core contains four crucial components: (1) power management and distribution system, (2) communications and monitoring system, (3) heating and cooling equipment, including ductwork and hot water storage, and (4) all appliances and fixtures.

The module is prefabricated and designed to be adaptable to a number of different floor plan layouts and home sizes. Real-time data for the operational efficiency of the home will be broadcast to the inhabitants, informing them of the environmental effects of their living choices. The systems will measure data, tabulate this data, and archive it in order to display trends over time. This data may also be used to prove the environmental benefit of living in energy-efficient, environmentally responsive homes.

Innovative Design Concepts

In addition to collecting solar energy, the skin system acts as a filter for everything the user needs. Multiple light layers are utilized in contrast to more traditional thermal-mass or sealed isolative strategies. This system is founded on the value of a selectively permeable membrane for both light and air, which means the skin is like the leaves of a plant, allowing for both the collection of solar energy and the passage of needed elements according to either optimum performance or user preference.

The Bio-filter, or greenhouse, integration provides three major functions that add to the sustainable nature and livability of the home: (1) air quality control, (2) food production, and (3) gray water filtration. Rather than hermetically sealing the house, which can lead to poor air quality and the introduction of health hazards in the form of molds, the envelope of the SEED[pod] is assembled from several light and thin operationally permeable layers which work together to provide fresh air and a temperate climate. The greenhouse filters the air, providing increased O2, filters water, regulates humidity, and provides thermal storage-all of which reduce the SEED[pod]’s overall energy footprint.

The house is truly an integrated system of innovative technologies and strategies that deliver a sustainable profile for modern ecological living.

Off to D.C.          

Matt Gindlesparger, the principal investigator for the project, is working feverishly with his team to prepare for the competition. His days are filled with contacting companies to solicit donations and support, welding joints, hosting television crews, and troubleshooting; more often than not, he can be found at night sleeping in his office.

The work ahead is significant.  Transporting the house to Washington DC trip will require three tractor trailers, multiple support vehicles, and a team of 22 students. Moreover, the house must be completed by August 28th  for an AzRISE-sponsored event to showcase the solar innovation for the community, Arizona’s congressional members and the University President.

The University of Arizona’s solar decathlon team has designed a technologically compelling and aesthetically satisfying home that serves as a showcase of the latest cutting edge research in sustainable design and building products of which they can be very proud.  Watch out Germany!

Donations in support of the UASDT can be made on line at www.uasolardecathlon.com


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