Students bring talents together
for RAE(V) solar home construction © July 22, 2011, Norwich University Office of Communications

A student prepares straps that will be used by a crane to haul one of the detachable sections of the RAE(V) solar house into place.

photo by Jennifer LangilleA student prepares straps that will be used by a crane to haul one of the detachable sections of the RAE(V) solar house into place.

While most students closed their books and left campus for the summer, a small group has remained to focus their attention on solar energy and carpentry skills.

Members of the summer Design Build Studio are continuing work on the RAE(V)[Renewable, Adaptable, Eco-Housing (Vermont)] project. Construction of this wood-framed, mobile solar house began earlier this year underneath a temporary structure as winter pressed on outside.

“There were some very, very cold days out here,” said Juan Camacho, a senior architecture major from Cali, Colombia.

We set up the impossible task and gave them the tools they need to accomplish it

Matt Lutz
Norwich professor of architecture

Camacho was part of a crew of about 20 students from academic disciplines as diverse as architecture, business and construction management who came together for this project. Divided into three groups, the class was responsible for handling the different jobs that will make the project a reality and a success. A team of several engineering students prepared the design and the layout of the structure based on plans started by architecture students; the media team gathered content for a promotional website; and the construction team was responsible for putting it all together.

Gathered around a set of plans inside the temporary structure, construction team members, including Camacho, and professors in hard hats discussed the next steps of the project and the goal for that sunny June day. Because the pitch of the roof was relatively flat, a drainage system was needed to move water off the surface quickly. Arms crossed in deep concentration, students discussed the strategy they will use for implementing the system.

Collaboration and innovation have driven RAE(V) from designs on paper to the physical structure that has taken shape over the last few months. The idea for the project started much earlier, however. In 2009, a group of students traveled to Washington, D.C., for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, which challenges collegiate teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and aesthetically appealing. At the event, the public is encouraged to tour the houses and learn about each structure’s unique features.

The Norwich students were inspired to create their own entry.

Only 20 teams compete at each Decathlon and travel from all over the globe to display finished structures. Although competition is stiff and Norwich wasn’t initially selected, students hope to complete RAE(V) and become one of those teams in the future. With the work of the spring and summer classes, the project has seen great progress.

The house is divided into three units that total just under 1,000 square feet when pieced together to form the house. The main unit houses the kitchen, living room, bathroom and primary bedroom. The two “plugins” as Camacho describes them, are a second bedroom and a dining/sun room.

“Having the ability to remove the plugins is important,” said Camacho, referring to the portability component.

Designed to be self sufficient, the structure may be placed anywhere and still function as a “regular” house. Solar panels will be attached to the roof of the structure—per Decathlon requirements—once it is erected in a semi-permanent location. Positioning is key, according to Camacho. The house will have to be carefully placed in relation to the sun’s path to maximize solar efficiency. Pine harvested from the Norwich University campus is being used, and the finished house will use radiant floor heating.

Professor Matt Lutz has been providing leadership for the project since its inception. He believes students have come up with superior design, and recognized the unique educational value in the project.

“This is giving the students the confidence to imagine a project and see it through from an idea to reality,” said Lutz. “We set up the impossible task and gave them the tools they need to accomplish it.”

The Decathlon contest aside, Lutz hopes that the house can become a model of sustainable living for people interested in owning such a home.

“It’s as much an affordable house as it is a green one,” said Lutz. “Living sustainability does not have to be expensive.”