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This New Student-Designed Super-Resilient Home Is The Beach House Of The Flooded Future

We need to redesign our coastal housing for stormier days ahead, and it’s going to look something like this.

When Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012, waters flooded over Hoboken, New Jersey, a commuter city across the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan. With half the city stranded, the National Guard moved in with food and supplies. Across New Jersey, the storm destroyed 350,000 homes.

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Three years later, a 60-person team of Hoboken students is assembling an impressive new resilient house that’s designed to withstand the next Hurricane Sandy-like storm and even supply power to its neighbors in a disaster. When they are done, they’ll send it to Seaside Park, a Jersey shore beach community, where it will serve as a resilience education center.

“It all started with: ‘How do we intellectually respond to Hurricane Sandy?” says architect John Nastasi, an instructor at the local Stevens Institute of Technology. “Being an engineering institution, we wanted to actively engage with the community.”

After more than two years of work, including interviews with many Jersey shore residents, the result is the Sure House (think SUstainability + REsilience). The house serves as the school’s entry into the 2015 Solar Decathlon, a biennial national competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy that challenges university teams to design and build attractive, innovative solar-powered homes.

Designed with the open layout of a beach cottage, the home is armored against extreme weather and uses 90% less energy than the average home of its size. What little energy it does consume is, of course, powered by the rugged solar cells on the roof. With the excess energy it generates, it can power an electric car or allow neighbors to plug in batteries if power goes out.

“Basically we’ve created an air tight bubble,” says construction manager Chris Hamm, a 23-year-old Stevens graduate student in product architecture and engineering. The home is designed to be a passive house, an ultra-low energy building standard that was first developed in Germany and is becoming increasingly popular in the U.S.

Sure House’s huge sliding windows–which would normally leak tons of energy–are actually three layers of 600 pounds of glass that seal into the frame. Preventing air from escaping is not only energy efficient, but it provides better storm resiliency. Many typical beach houses that use fiberglass insulation to keep heat inside had to be gutted due to water damage. “We’re ten times more airtight than a typical home,” Hamm says.

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Overall, the home is also designed to be extremely resilient in up to five feet of storm floods and 130 mph winds. Inspired by some elements of boat design, the resilience starts in the overall structures and is evident in many details. In a storm, for example, huge multi-purpose shutters can be pulled down over the wall-sized windows to protect from waters and winds. But during normal times, the shutters can be opened onto a supporting frame that creates a shaded, energy-saving porch. The porch is made of a PVC and bamboo composite that looks like wood, but is much better at withstanding water and salt water air corrosion.

Of course, the home isn’t completely in reach yet for most Jersey shore residents. It costs the students $350,000 to build, against an overall project budget of $2 million–all of which the students raise or find sponsorships to fund. The latter costs include shipping the home to and from California, where it will compete in September against 16 other homes in this year’s Solar Decathlon contest, a Department of Energy-sponsored contest student design contest for solar-powered houses. After, the plan is to send it to Seaside Park, where universities will partner to be involved in continued research and public education.

The students hope the story around their house helps in the competition, even though storm resiliency is not part of the judging criteria. Says AJ Elliott, another graduate student leading the project: “Building something sustainable is great, but if you’re building something that’s going to get wiped out by the next storm, what’s the point?”

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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