Campus News

UB’s GRoW Home is all grown up

UB's GRoW Home opens on the South Campus as a community learning center.


Published October 15, 2018 This content is archived.

“I’d love for people to see the house and realize that living sustainably does not necessarily mean living with less. It means living differently. ”
Martha Bohm, assistant professor
Department of Architecture

The rendering is about 5 years old. It was drafted by a group of students from the School of Architecture and Planning who proposed placing the GRoW Home in front of Crosby Hall on the South Campus, where it would become an educational space.

Fast forward a few years, hundreds of students and some 6,000 miles of travel, and the GRoW Home is now open on the South Campus as a clean energy and sustainability engagement center. When Martha Bohm saw the structure filled with dozens of students, faculty and staff at last month’s opening reception, it reminded her of that initial drawing.

“That rendering captured the imagination of all of us around keeping the house on campus,” says Bohm, assistant professor in the Department of Architecture who has served as the faculty lead on the project from the beginning, along with Nicholas Rajkovich, also an assistant professor in the department. “Seeing it full of new students who had not yet been a part of the project was seeing that rendering come to life,” she adds.

The GRoW Home’s opening in exhibition mode on the South Campus — funded by a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) — marks the beginning of a process of handing off the project from the School of Architecture and Planning, which led and created it as an entry in the 2015 Solar Decathlon, to the university.

At the end of the academic year, the university will move the home to its permanent location on the North Campus. It will be sited next to the Solar Strand, the 750-kilowatt solar array designed by internationally renowned landscape architect Walter Hood, where it will serve to leverage the region’s commitment to solar energy and highlight UB’s ability to successfully generate solar power. The move to the North Campus also is being supported by NYSERDA.

An original rendering of the GRoW Home produced by the Fall 2014 Solar Decathlon studio at UB; rendering work by Nate Heckman, Michael Tuzzo and Duane Warren.

The GRoW Home’s new phase is connected to a larger UB-led initiative that aims to create the next generation of clean energy leaders and install 100 new megawatts of clean energy for UB, the city of Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State, SUNY Erie Community College and Erie County.

The university is, understandably, excited to share the GRoW Home with a much wider audience now.

“It is open as a show house to the entire community and region, and we will be glad to bring as many people and organizations through that want to experience this place and understand how it works,” says Robert Shibley, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning.

“It’s been an extraordinary adventure. The GRoW Home will demonstrate to anybody moving through this campus and into this building that you can build a house that’ll produce more energy than it uses,” Shibley adds.

In addition to being open to the general public to explore, the GRoW Home will host small events, classes and lectures on campus. In fact, Bohm will be conducting her spring seminar in the structure. It also will be used for meeting space, and to educate groups both within and outside of UB about sustainability, Shibley says, adding that his personal goal is that no UB student graduates without experiencing the GRoW Home in a meaningful way.

Dylan Burns, a third-year graduate student in the School of Architecture and Planning, is one of the only students still at UB who worked on the GRoW Home during its competition phase. He says its location on the South Campus provides a great learning opportunity for new students to see what it’s all about. “It’s really cool to have it here on South Campus. There’s a lot of pride about it,” he says.

The house is also available for scheduled tours for local K-12 students and community organizations, as well as other colleges and universities around the area. The goal is for the house to inspire all who see it.

UB faculty and staff who would like a tour of the GRoW Home should contact Bohm.

“I’d love for people to see the house and realize that living sustainably does not necessarily mean living with less. It means living differently,” says Bohm. “One of the amazing things about the house is that it connects you so readily with the outside space. You don’t feel like you are living in such a small house when you have the sky and trees right around you.”

Photos: Alexander Becker

What is the GRoW Home?

For those unfamiliar with the GRoW Home, here’s a primer:

GRoW stands for Garden, Relax or Work. The house was designed and built for the 2015 Solar Decathlon, a prestigious international competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy that began in 2002 and has occurred every two years since 2005.

Led by Bohm and Rajkovich, a team of students in the School of Architecture and Planning began designing the dwelling in 2013 in preparation for the next Solar Decathlon. At the 2015 event in Irvine, California, the GRoW Home won first place in three categories and took second place overall, just nine points behind the first-place winner from New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology, which outspent UB by a 4-to-1 margin.

After the competition, the GRoW Home was disassembled and trucked back to Buffalo, where it sat in storage for a time while plans were finalized for rebuilding it and siting it behind Hayes Hall, a process that began in summer 2017. Work continued right up until just before last month’s opening reception.

The nearly 1,100-square-foot home produces 1.3 times more energy than it uses, an impressive feat considering one can do everything in the GRoW Home that would be done in a regular house, from preparing meals in the kitchen to watching television to washing and drying clothes, and showering.

Perhaps the GRoW Home’s most unique feature is the GRoWlarium, which allows food to be grown year-round, while buffering the house against cold winters and hot summers. In addition, three dozen solar panels top the roof. The walls and windows are highly insulated, and all of the lighting, appliances and mechanical equipment are super-efficient.

Reconstruction of the GRoW Home on UB's South Campus during the summer 2017.

Workers reconstruct the GRoW Home on the South Campus during summer 2017. Photo: Douglas Levere

A Herculean effort

The project has been touched by more than 400 students from 10 different departments at the university over the past five years. “These folks have brought us a gem that I think inspires new possibilities for the way we think about living life well in our communities,” Shibley says in thanking everyone involved.

The bulk of that effort occurred between 2013 and 2015 for the Solar Decathlon.

Since the structure’s return to campus, however, students have continued to work on — and learn from — the GRoW Home. Students worked on the construction of the GRoW Home’s siting on the South Campus, and designed its integration into the North Campus, spending the past few semesters working on the implementation of that.

Mike Gac, a third-year student in the School of Architecture and Planning’s Material Culture Graduate Research Group, worked as a student employee to assist UB Facilities in stewarding the home’s move to the North Campus. “Our students did an amazing job, a Herculean job almost,” he says of the work that’s been done since 2013. “It’s a great story for Buffalo on this rebound. The working attitude is still there, but we’re being smart about how we move forward. This is a perfect example of that.”

Once the GRoW Home settles in to its new permanent home on the North Campus next year, it will become a welcome clean energy and sustainability engagement center that invites visitors to “one of the most publicly accessible renewable energy landscapes in the country,” Shibley says.

The home’s positioning at a key gateway to the North Campus is very intentional.

“The GRoW Home’s tangible presence on campus is a physical reminder that we can make things of beauty and delight which ‘touch the earth lightly,’” says Bohm.

“These things can be conceived and implemented by students. Ultimately, the university is trying to produce sustainably literate citizens after their time here, and the house is a demonstration that not only can our students be literate, but fluent in sustainability.”