With its sleek lines and minimalist design, the GRoW Home looks like any contemporary house you’d see in a modern architecture magazine.
But this isn’t just any house. Designed to appeal to Buffalo’s burgeoning urban gardening population, the solar-powered home incorporates spaces where residents can garden, relax or work (GRoW); includes a greenhouse and kitchen for growing, processing, cooking and storing food; and generates 30 percent more energy than it consumes in Buffalo’s challenging climate. For these cutting-edge features and more, it took second place in the prestigious U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition.
The 1,100-square-foot house, one of 14 finalists in the biennial contest (20 were chosen from the original pool, but six dropped out along the way), went up against other collegiate teams in a multi-challenge competition based in Irvine, Calif., in October. In addition to coming in second overall, UB placed in the top five in all 10 sub-contests.
For two years, more than 200 students from 14 different departments, under the faculty direction of Assistant Professor of Architecture Martha Bohm, worked to design, create and build the GRoW Home—first in the classroom and then in a Tonawanda, N.Y.-based warehouse donated by a corporate sponsor. From this past June until mid-September, UB students worked 12 hours a day, six days a week, to build the house. In mid-September, it was disassembled piece-by-piece in a matter of weeks, packed onto two flatbed tractor trailers and shipped 2,500 miles to be reassembled at the competition site.
The Garden Zone
This 290-square-foot GRoWlarium (greenhouse/solarium) provides ample room for the home gardener to grow vegetables in any weather. The sun heats the space in colder months, creating conditions to extend the growing season beyond what it would be outdoors. In summer, the space opens up into a pleasantly shaded outdoor living space.
The Relax Zone
This small, super-insulated zone includes a bedroom and living space opening on to a private patio area. It’s perfect for Buffalo: cozy in the winter, but with easy access to the outdoors in summer. When the weather is temperate, high-performance folding glass doors connect the interior conditioned space to the GRoWlarium and exterior deck, making the house almost 50 percent larger while also minimizing the need to heat or air-condition the space.
The Work Zone
Connected to the Garden Zone, the Work Zone is a substantial kitchen/eating area where home gardeners can wash, can and store food. Rooftop solar panels and a system for catching and storing rain provide energy and water.
Nested in a T-shape is a cozy interior living space of 770 square feet, consisting of a living space, bedroom, kitchen and bathroom that doubles as a mudroom.
Old World Meets New
The GRoW Home’s insect-resistant and water-resistant larch wood exterior came from an Amish homestead in the town of Belfast, N.Y., 90 minutes outside of Buffalo.
Teams were not asked to build their own furniture as part of the challenge, but that didn’t stop UB’s team from seizing an opportunity to show off a little. Seventeen students in a graduate seminar led by Nicholas Rajkovich, an assistant professor of architecture in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning, crafted six ultra-efficient pieces of furniture to complement the GRoW Home.
HEAT-TRAPPING PLANTERS: The GRoWlarium can house 10 of these 6-foot-long rolling tables, designed to hold soil and seedlings. Because dirt and water are great at absorbing heat, the table helps to keep the home cool. At night the device can be wheeled outside to remove some of the day’s warmth from the premises.
CANNING TABLE: The urban gardener has a practical place to can and store fruits and vegetables. This 3-foot-tall cabinet includes space for a pressure canner; below that are four wooden shelves sized for storing mason jars.
MULTIPURPOSE NESTING BOXES: Depending on how they’re configured, these simple wooden nesting boxes can serve as end tables, stools or storage cubes, or can be combined to form a coffee table.
SOLAR DRYER, SITTING BENCH: This 6-foot-long device serves double duty as a dryer and, when laid on its side, a bench. It also helped with one of the Decathlon’s challenges: washing and drying six towels using as little energy as possible. “The dryer works by pulling cool air in through a grate at the bottom and venting hot air out through a grate at the top,” says Rajkovich.
TWIRLING TV STAND: Standing between the bedroom and the open concept living space, this 8-foot-tall shelf serves as an informal boundary. It’s also a floor-to-ceiling storage unit containing a TV that can be rotated between areas of the house.
TWO-FACED TABLES: Double the functionality with dual table surfaces. On one side of these two 6-foot-long tables are textured metal kitchen working surfaces. When flipped over, they turn into sleek wood surfaces for entertaining.
In the 10-day competition, the houses went head-to-head in 10 categories (five juried contests and five measured contests), with the overall winner determined by total number of points. The UB team finished with 941.191 points out of a possible 1,000. The first-place winner, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., scored 950.685 points.
UB did particularly well in the five measured contests, as below:
The GRoW House has a bright future back in Buffalo. The plan is to locate it on UB’s South Campus, behind Wende Hall, to be used temporarily as a public exhibition house—“so that the public in Buffalo has a chance to tour,” says Bohm. Then it will be modified slightly to serve in the longer term as a research and education center. Tentatively titled the “Multi-Scalar Energy Research and Education Center,” it will function as a locus for faculty research and community and professional outreach related to issues of energy use in the built environment.
Julie Wesolowski is a Buffalo-based writer and digital communications professional.