Architecture students set sights
on Solar Decathlon competition © April 2, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

An early model of the design entered in the Solar Decathlon competition features a shorter

photo by Jay EricsonAn early model of the design entered in the Solar Decathlon competition features a shorter “bumpout” addition, which increases interior space without affecting transportability.

Kyle Dupell believes that housing needs to move in a new direction, and the inspiration and effort will probably come from students like himself.

“It has to start somewhere,” said Dupell, a senior at Norwich University’s School of Art & Architecture, who envisions a future where people live in smaller, efficiently designed spaces that use little or no energy from nonsustainable sources.

Dupell and about a dozen other students in a project seminar are channeling their beliefs into an entry for the Solar Decathlon, an international Department of Energy competition to design and build the most livable, inspiring and energy-efficient home. For an early April 2010 deadline, students submitted a model of their house and are busy working on details and a construction schedule to start in the summer. The DOE has already determined their plans are in “competitive range,” meaning they’ve made the first cut. If selected as one of 20 final schools, Norwich students will travel to Washington, D.C., in October 2011 to assemble the house on the National Mall.

They did not back away from a single challenge.

~ Matt Lutz,
Architecture professor
talking about his students

Work is expected to continue if they aren’t selected, and students will set their sights on a later contest. Norwich’s President Richard Schneider recently committed to raising $600,000 toward the project, the largest academic initiative in the University’s $20.2 million Bearing the Torch fundraising effort.

It’s a two-year process that architecture Prof. Matt Lutz called “Herculean,” and began with a student trip to the 2009 contest. It will demand the efforts of students and staff from a long list of Norwich’s departments, including engineering management, civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering, computing, business management, geology and environmental science, communications and political science.

Confidence, however, is off the charts.

“Anytime I think it can’t get any better, we tweak it some more,” said Kevin Gecha, a junior from Whitehall, N.Y., about the design submitted to the DOE.

Their model depicts a 1,000-square-foot wood building with an eight-foot “bumpout” addition. The main structure is shrouded by leaning clip-on panels where solar collectors are mounted. Gecha said the house will be efficient and transportable without losing the “homey” touch he felt was missing from winning designs in the 2009 Decathlon. He added that Norwich’s entry will stand out because it was built to perform in the exceptionally cloudy weather of Vermont.

“The project, as a whole, was designed around the New England climate,” said Gecha. “If it can function here, it can function anywhere.”

Kristina Quinlan, a junior from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., likes what she called an understated elegance of the design. The solar panels, she said, accentuate the aesthetic feel, rather than appear “slapped on.”

“It’s not like anything else that’s been at the Solar Decathlon,” she said.

While Quinlan completed most of the interior computer renderings, ideas came from the entire group and were passed around for refinement. Finding consensus under time constraints, she said, was the toughest challenge.

“A lot of us are Type-A personalities,” she said. “We learned a lot about each others’ strengths and weaknesses.”

Dupell focused on another big challenge—the “bumpout,” which will be pulled out from the main building interior as the house is assembled. This unique feature increases the interior space without affecting the size of the transportable structure. He called it the most dramatic feature of their design, but initial plans to construct it entirely of wood could not have worked, he said.

“Wood-on-wood friction is too strong and probably would have torn the frame apart,” said Dupell.

With the help of engineering faculty, he and fellow student Nick Velozo came up with a drawer-like assembly to be made of steel that will handle the weight and make it more functional.

Lutz, who became involved with the competition as a faculty member at Virginia Tech, said Norwich students tore into these problems, formulating solutions without compromising design principles.

“They did not back away from a single challenge,” said Lutz, calling their plan remarkable for its features. Their house will be transported as a single box pulled by a truck that won’t require special permits for the load. It will be assembled in a very short time by a small group of people, and built from materials found largely in Vermont.

Students’ computer renderings of the house emphasized these features, showing the building utilized in hypothetical disaster-relief and war-zone situations. Dupell added a goal was to be able to take plans to a prefabricated housing manufacturer for easy mass production. An additional goal, according to Gecha, is to create something that can be built for $115 per square foot.

Gecha, who plans to work on small housing designs during his year as a graduate student—architecture students earn a four-year bachelor’s degree followed by an optional fifth-year master’s program—said his favorite feature is that the house looks livable and comfortable despite its compactness.

“I’m a firm believer that small is beautiful. You don’t need all that square footage.”