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“GRoW House” is UB’s ticket to Solar Decathlon

The Garden Box has room for the home gardener to grow vegetables in any weather. Image: School of Architecture and Planning

The Garden Box has room for the home gardener to grow vegetables in any weather. Image: School of Architecture and Planning


Published June 19, 2014

Students and professors in architecture, engineering and management will design, build and promote GRoW House — a 1,400-square-foot, solar-powered home — as finalists in the national Solar Decathlon competition.

“There’s an untapped potential in Buffalo to do interesting and provocative sustainable design.”
Martha Bohm, Assistant Professor
Department of Architecture

The contest, run by the U.S. Department of Energy, is a biennial affair that challenges collegiate teams to design, construct and operate cost-effective solar dwellings.

The Department of Energy announced on Thursday afternoon that UB was one of 20 schools selected to participate.

“This invitation is a clear demonstration of the strength of our faculty leadership and the talent of the student body," said Robert Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning. “Together, they have gotten us this far in a highly competitive, hands-on project focused on collaboration in design, construction, commercialization and the interdisciplinary teamwork essential for success.”

In the decathlon, which will take place in Irvine, Calif. in 2015, each entry will be evaluated in 10 contests, ranging from architecture and engineering to home appliance performance. Each decathlon draws tens of thousands of visitors from across the country.

The UB project’s playful title alludes to one of the main concepts in the home’s design: The house is meant to appeal to Buffalo’s urban gardening contingent. GRoW stands for Garden, Relax or Work, and the residence will include a generous greenhouse and kitchen for growing, processing and storing food.

The UB team will build GRoW House in Western New York, ship it to Irvine, Calif. for judging, then bring it back to Buffalo for permanent installation.

Ultimately, organizers hope GRoW House will become a community resource, open for tours that educate and inspire schoolchildren and the public about the benefits of sustainable, low-energy design. Possible permanent locations for the home include the city’s Fruit Belt neighborhood, the West Side or near the waterfront.

GRoW House is being developed under the leadership of Martha Bohm, assistant professor, and Brad Wales, clinical assistant professor, both of the Department of Architecture, working with department chair Omar Khan.

“There’s an untapped potential in Buffalo to do interesting and provocative sustainable design,” says Bohm, who worked on two Solar Decathlon projects as a Cornell University faculty member before joining UB. “Sometimes, to get things moving, you need a project that captures people’s imaginations — something captivating that people can experience firsthand. That it performs so well is the icing on the cake.”

So far, more than 40 students have taken architecture studios and seminars devoted to designing GRoW House. Plans call for three main spaces:

  • The Garden Box. This 649-square-foot greenhouse has ample room for the home gardener to grow vegetables in any weather. Sun will heat this space in colder months and generate electricity year-round via translucent solar panels integrated with the glass roof.
  • The Relax Box. This small, super-insulated room includes bedroom and ad hoc office space opening onto a private patio area. It’s perfect for Buffalo: snug in the winter, but with easy access to the outdoors — to fresh air and blue sky — in the summer.
  • The Work Box. Connected to the Garden Box, the Work Box is a substantial kitchen where home gardeners can wash, can and store food. This space shares key features with the Relax Box, such as thick walls and concrete floors, all of which will help moderate interior temperatures year-round. Rooftop solar panels and a system for catching and storing rain will provide energy and water.

The project is led by the School of Architecture and Planning, but students and faculty from across UB will form an integrated team for the competition. The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will lend its expertise to the design and construction process, and the School of Management will develop marketing and communications strategies for promoting GRoW House to the public. 

Support from the business community has been pledged by Montante Solar, Watts Architecture & Engineering, Buffalo Geothermal and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the UB team’s primary partner. Materials and mentorship will come from corporate donors and the U.S. Department of Energy will supply seed funding. The SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) will collaborate on the design of the house’s site.

Team members calculate GRoW House will generate electricity in excess of what residents would need for regular activities. Despite the long winters, solar makes sense for Buffalo, organizers say: We actually do get enough sunlight to make solar an effective option for powering homes.

“I designed a passive solar house in East Aurora that works very well — not quite net zero, but the design cut heating costs by 75 percent,” says Wales, a practicing architect best known for designing Elmwood’s SPoT Coffee and for working with UB students the past 12 years in the Small Built Works design-build program, culminating this past fall with The Front Yard installation at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. “Fossil fuels are expensive and their consumption generally degrades the environment. Let’s face it, sustainability is basically about saving the planet for our children.”

In addition to Bohm and Wales, the Solar Decathlon’s faculty advisers include James Jenson and Pinar Okumus from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Debabrata Talukdar from the School of Management, and Martin Hogue and Jamie Vanucchi from SUNY ESF

Students in architecture and planning, engineering and business who already have participated in the GRoW House project include Timothy Gargiulo, Nicholas Karl, Edward Schelleng, Alyssa Phelps, Peter Foti, Colleen Creighton Chen Lin, Steven Parks, Wayne Fung, Richard Vancuren, Jing Yan Li, Christopher Osterhoudt.

Also, Sung Yong Lim, Andrew Connorton, Maman Hamisso, Cassidy Edwards, Victoria Liberty, Marissa Pati, Vincent Schutt, Emily Warren, Louis Rosario, Josh Graham, Jeffrey Kaufman, Matt Geiger, Michael Floryan, Ramses Gonzalez.

Also, Nate Heckman, Joseph Tuberdyck, Nick LoCicero, Pooja Bhatt, Franz Heine, Timothy Boll, Marc Gerevics, Vincent Ribeiro, Leah Kiblin, Chris D’Ambrosia, Peter Byrley, Alanna Olear, Jacob Jordan, Eric Becker.

And, Aaron Salva, Ryan Dussault, Brian Fentzke, David Heaton, Hanna Ihrke, Yan Meng, Ryan Sidor and Trenton Van Epps.