Science & Research

Year after debut, student-designed solar house receives new honor

Techstyle Haus, which uses 90 percent less energy than other houses, selected as “Innovation by Design” finalist competition

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Fast Company magazine selected Techstyle Haus ­— a solar house created by students from Brown, the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Applied Sciences in Erfurt, Germany — as one of nine finalists in the student category of its 2015 “Innovation by Design” competition.

Techstyle Haus was originally built for the 12th Solar Decathlon in 2014. Jonathan Knowles, associate professor of architecture at RISD, submitted the house as one of 1,500 entries to the competition this year.

To the majority of the team, news of the most recent award came as a surprise. Derek Stein, associate professor of engineering and physics and the faculty adviser for the project, said he had “forgotten completely” that Knowles had entered Techstyle Haus into the competition until friends mentioned that the team had placed as a finalist.

The honor is “fantastic,” Stein said. Techstyle Haus “keeps paying dividends,” he said.

The house also continues to be in use, Stein added. Today, the house accommodates students in Domaine de Boisbuchet, France, where it remains a combination of innovative engineering and design. Techstyle Haus “will continue to be used and inspire people in years to come,” he said.

Isabelle Lubin ’16 said she and other members of the team were unaware that the house had even been entered into the competition until they received news that it was one of the finalists. It was a “really awesome surprise,” she said.

The house’s fabric exterior and flexible solar panels have never before been used for small-scale housing, said Gareth Rose ’16, a member of the team. Techstyle Haus is also a passive house — it uses 90 percent less energy than a standard house.

The most recent acknowledgement follows prior success for Techtyle Haus. The house also placed well in its debut at the Solar Decathlon competition, which was held in Versailles, France. A team composed of 35 students from the three universities, traveled to Versailles for the competition. During the competition, judges toured the Techstyle Haus and compared it to 19 other student-built houses. The house placed 14th overall and third in the “comfort conditions” category.

The students began designing  Techstyle Haus in September 2012 and planned to build the house using “emerging and interesting technology,” said Allison Chen, who graduated from RISD last spring.

“A lot of us had the same goals,” Rose said. But the engineering concentrators from Brown and the architectural students from RISD and Germany approached these goals differently, he said.

“The engineers were focused on making something high-performance, and the architects were focused on making something beautiful,” he said. The students worked to make the house aesthetic but efficient, he added.

The team decided to use a flexible fiberglass material called Sheerfill for the exterior. Sheerfill had been used before for stadiums, airports and other industrial-sized buildings,but  never for a residential house, Rose said. Sheerfill gave the house a curved look, but this created problems for the rigid solar panels. “We wanted to find a way to get solar panels that were high-efficiency, but also that were light, flexible and could fit on our curved roof,” Rose said. The team eventually found a company that made solar panels they could use.

Construction began in January 2014. The students built the house themselves in a University-owned parking lot in Cranston. “In the spring of (2014), we were honestly in Cranston most of the day,” Lubin said. The team would sometimes start at 6 or 7 a.m. and build until 8 or 9 p.m., Lubin said. Students did everything from installing insulation and plumbing to interior designing.

The team finished 80 percent of the house in Cranston, took it apart and shipped it to Versailles for the Decathlon. Students then had 10 days to rebuild the house before the competition began. “Our team was working around the clock,” Stein said. “Things got hectic very fast.”

The students gave tours of the house in English, French and German, both to judges and to the general public, over the course of three weeks. Techstyle Haus scored well in objective categories, Stein said. The house finished 14th out of 20 houses.


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