Students Build Skills and Push Limits of Energy-Conscious Design as Finalists in Solar Decathlon

By Edward Schelleng, MArch ‘14

Published February 27, 2015

Imagine tens of thousands of people traveling across the country to cheer for their favorite team…of architecture students. That will be the scene in Irvine, Calif., next fall, as UB competes against 17 16 other universities in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon—an elite international contest in which collegiate teams design, construct and operate costeffective solar dwellings.

UB’s entry, the GROW Home, is green, energy positive, and designed to promote a new way of sustainable living. The ultraefficient minimalist dwelling, which features a greenhouse+living space to grow food year-round, gives the user agency in the stewardship of energy while creating dynamic indoor-outdoor living. After the competition the home will be permanently sited in Buffalo as an educational and community resource. The School of Architecture and Planning is taking the lead with participation from UB’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and School of Management; in all, nearly 100 students and dozens of faculty members have participated in the project since 2012, when the first concepts were roughed out.

In the final stretch of the competition, architecture faculty and students are working hand-in-hand with 12 other UB departments and a handful of local businesses to problem-solve design, engineering and construction while managing a nearly $800,000 project budget and executing marketing plans. It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity to put their design-build skills to work while gaining practical experience in areas as diverse as cost estimating and building-integrated photovoltaics. It’s also a chance to put UB and Buffalo on the map for energy-conscious design and living.

As students begin construction and assembly (they’ll truck the finished house to California in September), design decisions are taking on greater weight and students are getting their hands dirty. The excitement and energy in the studio is palpable. 

Read on as members of the GRoW Home team take you through their efforts to win big for UB and Buffalo:

It would be my last studio as a Master of Architecture student, but the decision was a no- brainer. It was fall 2013 and the buzz around school was that UB was going to make a go for the Solar Decathlon, an elite competition that combines practicality and ecologically responsible design and brings it straight to schools and students. A research seminar the prior semester had generated an initial concept; in front of me was an opportunity to hone the design to a level that would gain UB a spot in this prestigious competition.

Here was a chance to conceive a design to the fullest extent, from the floors and roof to the fixtures and furnishings, all within the confines of a competition. If we got in, we would build our design from the ground-up. It would become part of the life of our school, university and community. Nothing would synthesize our practical skills and design awareness quite like this project. We all agreed, this would be the highlight of our academic careers.

Martha Bohm, assistant professor of architecture and lead faculty advisor on the project, captures the value of this experience: “A deep understanding at an intuitive level of how design decisions affects the way buildings use energy is a skill needed now in the profession. This project is an invaluable experience.

But the Solar Decathlon doesn’t just fit us as students – it fits the School of Architecture and Planning. The architecture program is exceptional at producing good designers, first and foremost. But at its heart, the School of Architecture and Planning develops design-builders. The Solar Decathlon is an opportunity to “be Buffalo” in this sense.

Nicholas Rajkovich, assistant professor of architecture and one of several faculty advisors on the project, says this is the school’s primary advantage: “It’s the willingness of people to roll up their sleeves and start building – whether it be a model, a mockup or the actual house. I’ve never worked at a school that has such a strong ethic of making; I think it will serve us well in the long run.”

The project would also put us at the table with top students from across the university to collaborate on decisions as small as selecting rain screen fasteners and as big as engineering the solar panels.

As we set to work examining competition precedents, the full scope of the challenge began to emerge. The building would need to perform well in both sunny California (for the competition) and Buffalo winters. And how would we ship this building across the country and then reconstruct it in less than 10 days? We also learned that architecture is just one of 10 contests that compose the Solar Decathlon – the GRoW Home would also be evaluated for its market appeal, comfort, affordability, appliance efficiency and even a “commuting” contest that measures the house’s capacity to power an electric car. Of course, if the previous competitions are any indication, the opposition is tough.


GRoW Home rendering

A new form of conscious urban design living: Featuring dynamic shading, fenestration and flexible indoor-outdoor space, the GRoW Home is designed to give the user agency in energy stewardship. Renderings by Nate Heckman, Michael Tuzzo and Duane Warren


“In most studios, we have one semester to basically just do massing concepts  or very preliminary schematic designs. This project goes way beyond that…We actually design the details, we fgure out the systems and we conduct  energy, thermal and mechanical performance analyses. It’s a completely different level of design investigation.”

— Christopher  Osterhoudt  (MArch ’15), project manager

“It’s not like we have a fnal review and put in our portfolio  and call it a day. We’re actually putting this thing together, seeing how it performs and entering it into a competition.  It will have a life that goes beyond our academics here at UB.”

— Michael Tuzzo (MArch ’16), project cost estimator



Through the research component of the studio, we began by mapping our design against the goals of the competition. Then, as a team, we defined our own goals, from taking a stand on energy consumption to designing the project to fit into the urban fabric of Buffalo – principals that were important to us as students and designers.

One of our first defined tasks was to integrate the competition’s base requirement of 600 to 1,000 square feet of conditioned space with unconditioned space to maximize efficiency, comfort and flexibility. Thus, our 770-square-foot home expands to more than 1,000 square feet through a tempered greenhouse+living space – the GRoWlarium – where residents can grow their own food, even during the cold months of winter. We took this approach – of taking an idea and blowing it out to its maximum extent – and applied it to much of our design.

Indeed, the house  is designed to eclipse the competition’s energy performance requirements. A hybrid between a greenhouse, modular home and power plant, the house reduces energy consumption across multiple aspects of urban life.

Thermal mass and extensive ventilation and shading minimize mechanical loads. Appliances and HVAC systems – including geothermal heat – are state-of-the-art in efficiency. The house’s doors, windows, shades and, most significantly, the GRoWlarium can be opened or closed to bring in the warmth of the sun in the winter or protect from its glare in the summer. All of these strategies will then be controlled by the homeowner to maximize performance and achieve a varied and delightful domestic space. The house further suggests that residents are active producers of the food that they consume, resisting the larger contemporary trend of an energy-intensive diet. Food grown (year-round) in the GRoWlarium requires no fossil fuel to produce or transport. With lower energy demands, roof-mounted solar electric and solar hot water panels (angled for Buffalo’s latitude) generate enough energy to power the house and an electric car. Excess electricity is sent back to the grid.


Occupants can grow food year-round in the GRoWlarium, a greenhouse+living space that opens up to the home's outdoor living area. Maximizing active and passive solar energy, the GRoW Home is net positive and will send surplus energy back to the grid. 

Still, we want to do more than win the competition – we want to reframe residential energy practices. The GRoW Home alters lifestyle energy use by demanding more of the occupant. It also connects the occupant with natural forces to manage energy in concert with the elements, not in opposition to them. It argues that bringing home energy management into the realm of domestic ritual and routine can translate into broader energy stewardship. Ultimately, we have created a more rigorous design than the competition brief expected of us. We are challenging  our own beliefs on residential energy use, and making an argument to the school, the U.S. Department of Energy and the greater public about what it means to live energy conscious.

The concept ultimately gained us entry into the 2015 competition as one of 17 teams from across the U.S. and world. That was February 2014. We’d have 18 months to finalize the design and build the house before trucking it to California for the competition.

To pull this off, we needed help. Teams of mechanical, electrical, structural and even seismic engineers have helped to fine-tune the house’s solar electric system, design its plumbing and mechanical systems and assess thermal performance. Students from UB’s School of Management are assisting with project marketing and cost analyses.

It has been a humbling experience. In the beginning, we saw the Solar Decathlon as an architecture competition, when in truth, it is a student competition. We’re working together not because someone told us to, or because it looks good on paper, but because it makes sense.

Such collaboration has also shaped the house’s design – for example, advancing the solar electric panels from a roughly designed system to a sophisticated, canopied array. The team’s project manager, Christopher Osterhoudt (MArch ’16), reflects: “For a year and a half it was just us putting rectangles on a roof and saying they can produce all this energy. [Then the engineering students] taught us how to put the panels in series with wires and inverters. That informed the spatial requirements inside the house itself and created new elements that we had to incorporate into the design.”

studio review

The GRoW Home's studio space is constantly humming with activity as team members assemble construction drawings and test prototypes. The house will be completed by summer 2015 and then trucked to Irvine, Calif., for the competition. Photo by Duane Warren (MArch '15)

The dynamic has fostered an entirely new and comprehensive studio experience that not only enriches the project but prepares us for today’s highly collaborative practice environment.

It’s a perfect marriage of knowledge and experience, according to Praveen Iyer, a graduate student in UB’s Electrical Engineering program who is leading electrical engineering for the house: “Engineers only look at purpose, the work that it’s supposed to be doing. Architects study symmetry, whether it goes with the design. There is a constant back and forth between engineers and architects. In the real world, that’s how it works.”

Adds Michael Tuzzo (MArch ’16), project cost estimator:

“We’re also learning how to communicate with other individuals on a project – engineers, sponsors and eventually contractors. It’s important we know how to convey our ideas to those from different fields, and not just to architects.”

As the team moves into design-development, construction drawings and actual prototyping, local businesses have been engaged to provide technical assistance. Montante Solar, a Buffalobased firm that develops solar applications for commercial facilities, has helped design the house’s PV system and is now offering its warehouse as construction space. LPCiminelli, a global contractor, is assisting in material procurement and providing REVIT support and construction management. Input on structural and mechanical engingeering is coming from Watts Architecture & Engineering.

Students are also tapping faculty expertise at an entirely new level. Consider that Bohm, who is leading design for the project, has prior experience as a sustainable design coordinator for William McDonough + Partners, a firm renowned for sustainable design leadership, and led two Cornell University Decathlon teams. Brad Wales, a clinical assistant professor of architecture who is overseeing the house’s construction and assembly, recently completed a passive solar house through his own practice and has led dozens of design-builds as director of the School of Architecture and Planning’s Small Built Works program.

“I’ve worked with Brad before in studio, but on this project you get to experience all the knowledge that our practicing faculty have to offer,” says Osterhoudt. “We’re learning so much in terms of how a building really gets put together, things you don’t always get to talk about in a regular academic setting.”

Adds Wales: “The Solar Decathlon gives students the opportunity to work directly with design professionals practicing in their fields. It is tremendously educational experience.” 

By practicing the skills needed to complete this project, we have honed the same skills that make us marketable to future employers. From manufacturer specification and cost estimating to marketing and fundraising, these are skills best learned through experience. Consider the perspective of Amanda Mumford, a senior in the environmental design program who manages communications for the project:

“This is more than just a building. We’re students conducting a business operation.”

As I watch this project move forward as a graduate of the School of Architecture and Planning, I feel great satisfaction knowing that I contributed. Like most projects here at the School of Architecture and Planning, it’s a personal as well as collaborative achievement. However, the true reward is the experience gained. As students, we often learn best by seeing with our own eyes and doing with our own hands. The Solar Decathlon gave us just that while placing our work, our university and our community on an international stage.

Now we just need to win.