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RISD/Brown/Erfurt team designs Techstyle Haus

10/28/2013

Students at RISD, Brown, and the University of Erfurt are tackling a great challenge: build a house that uses 90 percent less energy than a typical house, make it livable, flexible, durable, and lightweight enough to be shipped from Providence to France — and design it better than 19 other top teams from around the world. That’s the Solar Decathlon. The RISD-Brown-Erfurt team calls its entry the “Techstyle Haus.”

For two weeks next July, the grounds of France’s Palace of Versailles will be transformed into a solar-powered village, showcasing sustainable homes built by college students from around the world. Among them will be a house like no other, with a roof and walls made not of wood or metal, but almost entirely of durable, highly insulated textiles.

Techstyle Haus is the brainchild of students from RISD, Brown and the University of Erfurt in Germany and will be one of only two entries by a U.S.-based team in the 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe. The international competition pits 20 teams against each other in 10 challenges to see who can build the most energy-efficient, innovative, and livable solar house.

The Techstyle Haus team was accepted into the competition last December after submitting a preliminary proposal. Since then, the students have been hard at work refining their designs, choosing materials, and engineering the house’s key systems. Construction is set to begin in Providence in January. In the spring, the finished product will be partly dismantled and shipped to the competition site at Versailles — the former home, appropriately enough for a solar competition, of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV.

From the beginning, the team set out to push the envelope of what was possible in sustainable construction.

First and foremost, the team wanted a house that met the highest standards of efficiency. But they also wanted a home that was flexible and livable, with an interior that could be reconfigured to accommodate different uses — extra bed space for houseguests or more open space for a dinner party. Building with lightweight materials was an important consideration as well. All the construction materials will need to be sent to the competition site in France, so identifying materials that could be shipped cheaply and sustainably was important. The team’s solution was to build with textiles.

Techstyle Haus’s outer shell will be made of a robust synthetic fabric — similar to the fabrics used on roofs of domed stadiums — supported by three structural ribs made of wood. Interior walls will also be made of fabrics, to make the space transformable. The house’s plumbing, heating, and air conditioning systems will be placed in a central hub, which makes for easy access and structural efficiency.

But building a highly efficient solar home with textiles comes with a myriad of challenges, and the team members have set a high bar for themselves. They’re aiming to meet the standard for a passive house — one that uses 90 percent less energy than a standard house.

To reach that standard, the house’s textile walls require a design that combines highly efficient insulation with materials that resist fire and dampen sound. The heating and cooling system will need to be the picture of efficiency, running on less power than is required to run a hair dryer. The solar array will need to be flexible to cover the curved surfaces of the house’s textile roof.

Each of these challenges requires a novel solution, which the team will continue to refine over the next nine months. Ten Brown engineering students have made the Solar Decathlon project into an independent study course this semester and next. At RISD, nearly 40 students are engaged in the project in their coursework this semester.

With all the challenges facing the team over the next nine months, they’ve already overcome what might have been the toughest one: convincing people that the project could be done in the first place.

Industry partners include Saint-Gobain, a green materials company; PVillion, a maker of solar panels; Veissmann, a heating system company; Taco, a Rhode Island-based maker of heat transfer systems; DPR Construction, an Atlanta-based contractor; and Shawmut Design and Construction, a Boston-based builder.

So far the team has raised more than $500,000 in cash, materials, and consulting expertise. All told, they expect to raise over $700,000 to complete the project.

And while all of this work is being done for a good showing at the competition, the students are well aware of the bigger picture. The ultimate aim of the event is to spread the word about clean energy and sustainable living. Thousands of people are expected to attend the competition and tour the homes.

“We want our exhibition site to teach people about all the different parts of the house and what their functions are,” said Eliza Brine, a team member and third-year student in the Brown School of Engineering. “This is about educating people and moving the building industry in a direction we want it to be going.”

The competition begins June 27, 2014.

About Rhode Island School of Design

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) has earned an international reputation as the leading college of art and design in the United States. Recently ranked #1 in Business Insider’s survey of The World’s 25 Best Design Schools, approximately 2,400 students from around the world study at RISD, pursuing full-time bachelor’s or master’s degree programs in a choice of 19 studio majors. RISD is known for its phenomenal faculty of artists and designers, the breadth of its specialized facilities and its hands-on, studio-based approach to learning – one in which critical thinking informs making works by hand. Required courses in the liberal arts provide an essential complement to studio work, enabling graduates to become critical and informed individuals eager to engage with the world. Through the accomplishments of its 26,000 alumni, the college champions the vital role artists and designers play in satisfying the global demand for innovation. Founded in 1877, RISD (pronounced “RIZ-dee”) and the RISD Museum of Art help make Providence, RI among the most culturally active and creative cities in the region. For more information, visit www.risd.edu or our.risd.edu.

 


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At RISD there's nothing unusual about suddenly finding a doorknob on a tree trunk, shown here across from Carr House,
the charming home of Student Life offices and the student-run Carr Haus Café.