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GRoW Home just about ready to settle in

UB's Garden, Relax or Work (GRoW) Home is being temporarily sited on the South Campus to serve as a university and community resource center.

By DAVID J. HILL

Published September 25, 2017

“It’s a much different experience compared to the classroom setting.”
Alexandra Sheehan, GRoW Home student coordinator

UB’s nationally recognized GRoW Home is getting closer to being ready to meet its new neighbors.

A team of students is hard at work putting the finishing touches on the 1,100-square-foot, ultra-efficient solar dwelling, which is being temporarily sited behind Hayes Hall on the South Campus.

The GRoW Home — which stands for Garden, Relax or Work — produces more energy than it consumes and features nearly three-dozen solar panels and a greenhouse where occupants can grow food year-round. It will be used to educate the public about low-energy living and provide classroom and small event space in its new life as a university and community resource center.

The sustainable living project, designed and built by more than 100 students across the university under the leadership of the School of Architecture and Planning, placed second in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Solar Decathlon in Irvine, California.

UB’s performance in the 2015 Solar Decathlon, the university’s debut bid in the international contest, yielded stellar results. In addition to its second-place finish overall, the super-efficient GRoW Home earned top-five finishes in each of the competition’s 10 contests. The house placed first in three of those contests, all in measures of energy performance.

After the competition, the structure was disassembled and trucked back to Buffalo for storage until it was time for the next phase.

This summer, students worked with UB faculty and major GRoW Home donor LPCiminelli to prepare the foundation, which required moving several feet of gravel, both with machinery and by hand. This labor-intensive process was important for the students to experience, says Kenneth MacKay, clinical associate professor of architecture, who is overseeing the reconstruction effort that stays true to GRoW Home’s beginnings as a student-led, design-build project.

“As architects, we often work in a digital medium. It’s weightless. But when students actually get to move stone and feel the difference in weight between steel beams and aluminum solarium frames, they receive a valuable hands-on experience that enriches their appreciation for this work,” MacKay says, adding that this also helped save on some of the project costs.

In addition, the hands-on work afforded a number of students the opportunity to complete a 10-hour construction safety training course offered through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

Students have been working on the home every Saturday morning, with a goal of finishing around mid-October. The greenhouse and 32 solar panels will be installed in the coming weeks.

There are a few differences between how the home is being set up on the South Campus compared to when it was assembled on a massive former airbase for the Solar Decathlon.

“It’s been a very different effort siting it on South Campus, almost like a redesign,” says Alexandra Sheehan, a second-year master of architecture student who’s coordinating the student part of the project. “We had to make several changes with the utilities. Siting it here isn’t the same as resting it on a tarmac like we did in California.”

For example, the GRoW Home won’t require a large wooden deck and ramp to accommodate the volume of visitors that toured the home when it was on display in California. The plumbing and electric have also been changed because neither will be used as frequently.

Details are not yet final, but long-term plans call for the GRoW Home to be moved to the North Campus. Martha Bohm, assistant professor of architecture and a faculty adviser on the 2015 Solar Decathlon entry, is leading a fall studio in which students are considering the options for siting the GRoW Home on the North Campus.

These new phases of the GRoW Home are key components of UB’s participation in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Energy to Lead competition, part of his Reforming the Energy Vision (REV) Campus Challenge project. UB received $1 million in May 2016 to spearhead a plan to create 100 megawatts of new, locally produced solar energy.

For the university as a whole, the GRoW Home serves as an experiential learning project for students from a range of majors other than architecture and planning. Students have accumulated hundreds of credit hours by working on the GRoW Home through its various stages — from more than two years of design, planning and construction before the 2015 Solar Decathlon, to assembling it and taking it apart, prepping the structure for transport to California and then back to Buffalo, siting it on the South Campus and weighing its future location.

“The school’s vision for the GRoW Home has always been that it not be seen as an object, but as a vehicle for developing a pedagogy to instruct across generations of students,” MacKay says. “The students who have worked on this are using their current skillset and expanding it with all the new knowledge they’ve gained.”

Sheehan agrees. “I’ve learned so much about project management, innovative building materials, construction documents and procuring materials, and how to keep moving a project forward even when you can’t do much work while you are waiting for building permits,” she says. “It’s a much different experience compared to the classroom setting. We’re interacting with contractors and doing the legwork required to get the job done.”

The GRoW Home continues to benefit from support from the community after donations from more than 450 individuals and organizations propelled its success in the 2015 competition. Leadership support has been provided by Ciminelli Real Estate Corp.; Buffalo developer George Gellman; Intigral Inc.; The John R. Oishei Foundation; Larkin Development Group; LPCiminelli; Montante Solar; Robert Morris; National Grid; NYSERDA; SolarCity; UB President’s Circle; U.S. Department of Energy; and Watts Architecture & Engineering.