RISD, Brown Team Up To Build A Solar House

Mar 2, 2014

Leave it to a team of the brightest students in Rhode Island to design a solar-powered house made almost entirely out of high-quality fabrics. Students from Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt in Germany are competing as one team, called Team Inside Out, in the 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe, taking place in Versailles, France in July.

RISD and Brown students will work long hours to build a mockup of their solar house, until they're ready to ship it to Versailles, France for an international solar competition in July.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

The construction of their solar-powered house, called TechStyle Haus, is underway in Cranston after nearly two years of planning and designing the solar house.

The team will compete with 19 other college teams for the best performing and most efficient, beautiful solar house.  This year’s decathlon highlights innovation in architecture.

“I think you can tell pretty from looking at our house that it’s not an ugly little box, with no windows,” like solar houses typically showcased at solar decathlons, said Matt Breuer, a senior in engineering at Brown. “We huge these huge, glass windows and it’s this textile, instead of the normal concrete or wood box.”

Team Inside Out is using existing, high performing fabrics that are fire proof, water resistant, and energy efficient, but combining the materials in new ways to create a lightweight, easy to construct, deployable, and inexpensive solar house.

The strapping that spans between these two pieces of wood will suspend the installation between the strapping. "No nails, no plywood, no drywall," said Jonathan Knowles, professor of architecture at RISD and co-director of the project.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“We are taking advantage of these new technologies to create a new wall,” said Jonathan Knowles, professor of architecture at RISD and co-director of the project. “We don’t have plywood. We don’t have studs. We are actually suspending, hanging, and stacking insulation and fabrics to make our enclosure.”

The team has designed the solar panels to lie against a curved roof. As the students build their mock-up, they’re making sure this ambitious design is as energy efficient as possible – it will use 90 percent less energy than a typical house.

“Our house is designed to never use more energy to heat and cool than a hair dryer,” said Breuer. It’s also designed to withstand intense weather events, such as hurricanes and blizzards.

The team is working long days to refine the design, along with the electric, heating, cooling, and ventilation systems. Then the team will take apart the solar house, ship it to France, and rebuild it in Versailles.

Kevin McNulty, a graduate student in architecture at RISD, said the project will have a legacy after the competition. The original prototype of the solar house will have a home in southwestern France at the prestigious Domaine de Boisbuchet, which holds annual workshops for designers, architects, and artists from all over the world.

“Our house is going to end up as a student housing pavilion [for visiting students] on that campus,” said McNulty. “This project is about renewable energy. Waste is not an option. Where the solar house ends up, how it is used, and how functional it continues to be after the competition is just as important.”

“The house itself is meant to be modular in a way,” said Howard Carter, an economics and computer science sophomore at Brown. “Boisbuchet is going to build six to seven additional homes identical to our house.”

The solar decathlon supports the competing teams with a small grant to get their projects off the ground. Team Inside Out had to come up with a budget and look for sponsors.

The two pieces of wood are two out of the five ribs that will make up the enclosure of the solar house. The mock up ribs are made out of wood in order to adhere to Rhode Island building codes. The team will use steel ribs when they build the final solar house in Versailles.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“We’re currently [building] at Ximedica, a RISD-founded company,” said Isby Lubin, a sophomore student in civil engineering at Brown. “Ximedica donated the [warehouse] space to build the solar house.”

Many of the leading companies manufacturing energy efficient and sustainable materials have been eager to donate materials for the TechStyle Haus, so that the solar house can showcase what their products can do.

Lubin said the team has a long list of sponsors that, in addition to donating tools, supplies, and other materials, are also providing mentorship and technical support to the team.

The team has received money from its Kickstarter campaign, their universities, corporations, and private donors.

“We’re always fundraising,” said Lubin. “We’ve achieved a major level of sponsorship so far.”

The team has about $100,000 left to raise for the project.

Knowles said this project is a great model for teaching. “They have to manage, design, build, and ship a fully functional solar house,” he said. “There is no other better educational model for students of engineering, architecture, and all the allied professions that they could work on at school in terms of a learning experience.”

Many of the students participating in this project said they couldn’t pass up an opportunity to work on a project that prepares them to address pressing energy crises.

The solar decathlon, originally created by the U.S. Department of Energy, is meant to show people that high performing, energy efficient homes can be comfortable, beautiful, and affordable. The competitions have expanded to Europe and China.