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This Stackable Solar House Was Designed (And Built) For New York City’s Streets

Most futuristic solar homes have a suburban or rural alure. But this one–created by undergrads–is about bringing renewables to growing citiies.

When teams design solar-powered houses for the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, they normally imagine a milieu other than downtown. Look back at the entries since the student contest began in 2002, and most of the renderings picture buildings in rural places, often amid long grass and barley.

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What’s different about the entry from New York City College of Technology this year is that it’s set in an urban environment. It’s a solar house that’s meant for the cold, hard city streets.

Team leader Amanda Waal says NY City Tech wanted its house to reflect the background the students, the college’s own location in Brooklyn, and that the majority of people are going to live in cities in the future.

“I think bringing urbanism into the Decathlon is really important,” she says. “A few schools have done it in the past, but the houses are mostly suburban or vacation homes. This issue of urbanism is really important to our team, and as populations grow in cities, it seems most important for young designers to think about that.”

The students, almost all undergraduates, call the house D.U.R.A., which stands for Diverse, Urban, Resilient and Adaptable. “New York is one of the most diverse cities and also this team is. It’s different from other solar decathlon teams. We have 40 countries [represented) and multiple languages spoken on site,” Waal says.

D.U.R.A has a relatively small footprint and is designed to be stackable. The team imagines up to four houses on top of each other, each with one bedroom, one flexible room (that can be used as an extra bedroom or for something else), a bathroom, and kitchen area. It gets its power from 40-by-60 inch panels spread at angles on the side of the house. “They’re oriented in order to not shade the one on top and the one below and get as much solar access as possible,” Waal says.

Waal concedes the 5.8 kilowatt array isn’t as muscular as on other houses, but says it’s big enough provided inhabitants don’t go crazy plugging in too much stuff. “It’s designed on passive house principles, so heating and cooling don’t cost every much. But [how much power is needed] depends on how users operate the house. We have a smaller array than some houses, but we feel it’s right-sized.”

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The Solar Decathlon says the teams need to use no more than 175 kilowatt hours over the 10 days of the competition, which isn’t a lot considering the houses need to generate all their own power, and charge up an electric car as well. Starting this year, they have to drive that car as well, for a minimum of 25 miles per day.

I visited D.U.R.A. recently in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, just before it was about to be shipped to Irvine, California for the competition. I was impressed. The team has since dissembled the house into six modules, ready for reconstruction with a final exterior finish and solar panels. The Decathlon, which involves 10 sub-contests (from “affordability” to “energy balance”) begins October 8.

NY City Tech hasn’t decided what to do with the house afterwards, though a local New York Fire Department group has expressed an interest. Wherever it ends up, somewhere in the city would seem appropriate.

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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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