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This Season-Shifting Solar House Is Surrounded By A Greenhouse

Students at the University of Buffalo are building an amazing house that is fully powered by the sun.

The Department of Energy’s biennial solar house building competition, the Solar Decathlon, rolls around again in 2015, and the student teams are already showcasing their ideas ahead of the big fall showdown.

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One early project that caught our eye is an entry from the University of Buffalo, entitled GRoW.

GRoW is a conventional sort of house augmented with a steel canopy over-layer. The house features the GRoWlarium, a greenhouse area that shifts shape with the seasons. In summer, it’s open and airy and protected by large blinds. In winter, it shelters plants and acts as a heat buffer to the cold outside.


“The GRoWlarium is the conceptual and physical heart of the home. It provides flexible use depending on the season,” says Christopher Osterhoudt, an MA architecture student and GRoW’s general project manager.

“In the summer, two huge doors open up into the GRoWlarium, you open up the ridge vents, and it becomes one big open floor plan. You can bring out your couch and TV and your dining room, and it becomes a huge living space.”

The canopy almost mounts the solar panels that power the house (all Decathlon projects have to power themselves fully from the sun) and it acts as a rack for many plants hanging and fixed to the outside wall.


The Buffalo team, like all the 20 or so finalists, has been planning its house for a long time. The bar at the Solar Decathlon has risen progressively higher, requiring schools to spend longer developing teams, cross-discipline partnerships, bringing in sponsors and industry collaborators, and so on. GRoW’s 30 students come from its architecture, engineering, management schools, and the honors college.

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The team will ship the house to Irvine, California, in September for the finals. The main “T” of the house breaks into two sections, which will go on flatbed trucks. The steel canopy will be assembled on-site, “stick construction” style.

After the competition, Osterhoudt hopes to bring the house back to Buffalo, New York, and rebuild it, possibly on U.B.’s campus. To do that, the team will need to put an extra geothermal system underneath the foundation. That will help minimize electric heating costs in the winter time.

Of course, assembling all these ideas into a whole isn’t cheap. U.B. has spent $300,000-plus bringing GRoW to fruition (which seems to be something like the going rate for the Decathlon these days). It’s perhaps time for the organizers to cap excessive spending, though it’s hard to argue with having the best houses possible.

“We showcase all these technologies, the high-performance stuff. When people see it, they start to learn from those ideas and apply it to themselves,” Osterhoudt says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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