The GRoW Home!

More than two years in the making, UB’s solar-powered masterpiece gains national recognition

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Students and faculty built a solar home with on-site greenhouse to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon in October 2015. The UB GRoW Home, which looked at energy consumption from a broad perspective, took second place overall.

By Julie Wesolowski

“The house was designed for a four-season climate here [in Buffalo]. It was a happy coincidence that conditions in the competition period [in California] are equivalent to our peak summers here in Buffalo.”
Assistant Professor of Architecture Martha Bohm

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 Three Zones

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.

  • A 24-panel photovoltaic system allows the house to produce more energy than it consumes.
  • A canopy covers the enclosed portion of the house and helps obscure the line between inside and outside space.
  • An energy-monitoring system enables the homeowner to track energy consumption for an optimum balance of efficiency and comfort. Sensors strategically placed throughout the house monitor temperature, humidity and electricity use—information that can be accessed on an online portal via a mobile device.
  • Operable ventilators are strategically located high in the spaces to encourage natural ventilation and reduce energy needed for cooling.

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.

What’s a Home Without Furniture?

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.

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:

  • Comfort Zone: 1st — Points were earned for maintaining narrow temperature and relative humidity ranges during specified periods of time.
  • Appliances Contest: 2nd — Points were earned for ability to maintain temperature within a set range while running appliances such as the refrigerator, freezer, washer, dryer and dishwasher.
  • Home Life Contest: 4th — This contest measured a house’s hominess, using such measures as its ability to produce a hot shower on demand. Part of the contest involved hosting two dinner parties and a movie night for neighbors. (One of the UB engineering students who contributed to the Solar Decathlon was a professionally trained chef. Her menus for the GRoW dinner parties featured jerk pork tenderloin with mango salsa and snow peas, lacquered salmon with micro greens and Asian vinaigrette, and lemongrass-infused herbed couscous.)
  • Commuting Contest: Tied for 1st — Teams had to drive an electric vehicle charged from their house electric system several times during the competition. Full points were awarded for driving 25 miles or more in two hours or less at eight different times.
  • Energy Balance Contest: Tied for 1st — This contest was divided into energy production and energy consumption. For production, a team received full points for achieving a net positive energy balance. For consumption, a team received full points for using 175 kWh of energy or less over the competition. UB was the only team to stay under this threshold and perform all required competition tasks.

What Now?

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.

Grow Home photos by Thomas Kelsey and Carol Laurie/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon and Carl Burdick. Furniture photos by Douglas Levere. Grow Home rendering courtesy of the UB Solar Decathalon Team, 2015.