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Students explore sustainable houses with true energy

Coursework Stories | Oct 11, 2011 |

by Catherine Migueis (GSB ’12)

A view from the front steps of TRTL, a “net-zero” energy house designed by the University of Calgary in Canada.

On a recent gray, rainy October day, solar-powered houses were probably the last things on most people’s minds. Not so for the 19 teams of college students from around the world who convened in Washington, D.C., for the Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

These teams of undergraduate and graduate students had collaborated to build “net-zero” modular homes — homes that produce every bit of energy that they consume. They transported their creations to the National Mall in Washington to be judged in the Decathlon, which evaluated them on 10 different points, including energy efficiency, comfort, affordability and design. The student teams did it all: drawing up a business plan, designing the house, raising money and finding sponsors, building the house and producing marketing and educational materials for it.

While Fordham students did not compete, our students and professors recognized there was a lot to be learned from attending. An eclectic group of Gabelli students, graduate business students, and design and architecture students hopped on a bus to find out firsthand.

How can these houses produce energy? It turns out that even on cloudy days, every one of the 19 houses can generate at least as much energy as they need to run their high-efficiency appliances and heating systems — and many even produce excess energy. To do this, the houses went beyond mere solar energy, putting brilliant ideas to use in these working models.

Miguel Bantigue (GSB ’12) examines the desiccant waterfall humidifier in the winning University of Maryland house.

The Decathlon’s winning house had it all. This submission from the University of Maryland was sustainable from the inside out. Indigenous plants were self-watered from rainwater collected from the roof and filtered through a constructed wetlands. There was an edible garden, a natural air dehumidifier and purifier, a green grass roof to capture rainwater and, of course, solar panels. All of these innovations were housed in a beautifully designed and comfortably decorated building.

Each house had a specific target market, and often an inspiring mission, too. The team from the University of Calgary in Canada, for example, designed a modular home to fill a critical housing need among the Canada’s Native people living on reservation land.

After the competition ended, the houses headed off to varied destinations. Some were shipped back to their home campuses to serve as student housing or multi-purpose buildings. Others will be sold as residential homes. The house created by a joint team from the Parsons New School for Design and the Stevens Institute of Technology will remain in Washington, D.C., as a home for Habitat for Humanity.

The Fordham group members were privileged to have a dinner meeting with Joerg Thoene, a Parsons faculty member, who spoke about how sustainable design doesn’t stop at the Decathlon. He discussed the countless problems that it could help to solve, from energy use to housing the poor — problems that also offer considerable business opportunities. This resonated with the Fordham group, which included many people connected with Fordham’s new minor in sustainable business. This fall’s Sustainable Business course deals with the implications of such innovative — and often controversial — entrepreneurial ventures, and how they can resolve troubles such as natural resource depletion, poverty and overconsumption.

The line at the Decathlon to explore the winning Maryland house wrapped around the block, with a wait time that often exceeded 40 minutes. There was a palpable excitement and feeling of awe and pride at seeing the tremendous work from these young adults, not to mention hope that these seeds of ideas would grow into something revolutionary.


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