Stevens Students Build Sustainable House for Solar Decathlon

By Michael Hill

In the shadows of Manhattan, Stevens Institute of Technology students in red hats size up, saw and sand their way to building their sustainable and resilient or SURE HOUSE.

“It’s being built mostly out of everyday building materials,” said Construction Manager Chris Hamm.

It’s for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2015 for universities. Twenty teams tasked with building solar-powered houses that are affordable, attractive, easy to live in and energy efficient.

“It’s 100 percent solar powered as I’ve mentioned. It’s 90 percent less energy use for heating and cooling because we’re air-sealing and insulating it so well,” said Stevens Institute grad student A.J. Elliott.

Stevens students designed and built the solar shutters that shade the large windows that can heat the house. The shutters close to guard against 135 mile an hour winds and they have solar panels connected to the water tank so the sun heats the water even in an extended power outage.

“You can still be producing hot water and take hot showers,” Hamm said.

The students of Stevens Institute of Technology designed, engineered and are building this house not just with the Solar Decathlon in mind, but for a horizon well beyond it.

“We’re really designing this house particularly for the Jersey Shore. That’s our target market. But really, any coastal area that’s susceptible to rising sea levels and increased storm activity this house is ideal for,” Elliott said.

What Sandy did to New Jersey has inspired these students to build a resilient 1,000-square-foot, two-bedroom, one bath house with a kitchen, dining area and living area — a house whose solar system has no battery or diesel backup but packs a ton of features so it will stand up to nature, its ravages and its aftermath.

“So after a storm, you’re returning back to your home, we’re still able to produce standby power that we’re actually designing a few charging stations in the home to enable community members to come over and charge their devices after a storm,” Elliott said.

“It really does have a purpose far beyond just the Solar Decathlon competition,” Hamm said.

The designers say the SURE HOUSE is 10 times more air tight than the average house with super flood proofing.

“On the exterior, we’re putting all sorts of plastic sheeting around that’s actually continuous, making it essentially a bathtub,” Elliott said.

“Because it’s waterproof, the house is buoyant so we spend just as much energy holding the house down than we do keeping the water out so that the buoyant forces of the houses are strong. So in our engineering or the systems that keep the house down when the waters rise. So if we disconnected it, it would float,” said lead professor John Nastasi.

The Stevens SURE HOUSE heads on the highway to Irvine, California next month for the Solar Decathlon in October and then it will come back to go on the Jersey Shore.

This prototype costs about $350,000 to build, but mass produced would make it a lot less and affordable. The young designers and builders see it as necessary, as their intellectual response to Sandy and more.

“And so we are trying to start this conversation and the Solar Decathlon is giving us that opportunity,” Hamm said.

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