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RISD/Brown/Erfurt Team Unveils One-of-a-Kind Fabric Solar House at 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe

06/27/2014

Students from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Brown University and the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt, Germany have been hard at work for nearly two years designing and building their one-of-a-kind entry for the 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe – and the time has come to show their work to the world.

This summer, from June 28 through July 14, the grounds of France’s Palace of Versailles will be transformed into a solar-powered village, showcasing 20 sustainable homes built by college students from around the globe. Among them will be a house like no other, Techstyle Haus, with a roof and walls made not of wood or metal, but almost entirely of durable, high performance textiles.

The team – officially called “Team Inside/Out” in the competition – spent the spring semester in Providence, Rhode Island constructing the home’s structural supports, attaching its signature textile shell and adding the flexible solar panels that will provide all the power the house needs – and then some. After determining that everything was in working order, the team carefully disassembled the house, packed it into five shipping containers, and shipped it across the Atlantic, where the teams had 10 days to build their houses on site before judging formally opens on June 28.

Designing and constructing a highly efficient solar home with textiles is no simple task, and the team set the bar high. To reach the Passive House Standard – one that uses 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a standard house – the house’s innovative textile wall assembly required a design that combined highly efficient insulation with materials that resist fire and dampen sound. The plumbing, heating and cooling systems, placed in a compact mechanical core, are the picture of efficiency, running on the power it would take to operate a hair dryer. Solar photovoltaic cells and solar thermal units are used to harness energy. The photovoltaic array covering the curved surfaces is innovative, lightweight, flexible and efficient – the curvature of which helps to capture more solar energy over the course of a day than a flat system would.

“This project has been a great opportunity for us to reconsider how we think about energy efficiency and the play between function and form,” said Helen Bergstrom, Brown chemical engineering student and project engineer. “It has been amazing to see how efficiency optimization can be used to create a structure that is seamless, elegant and comfortable. If someone had told me two years ago that students could design and build a home out of fabric that produces over 50% more energy than it uses I would not have believed it. I think we have all surprised ourselves and our communities.”

One of the most spectacular tasks during the initial construction in Rhode Island was stretching the innovative outer textile shell over the 800 square foot house, which is made of a flexible fiberglass material called Sheerfill® II Architectural Membrane with EverClean® Photocatalytic Topcoat. The material is often used for roofs of domed stadiums, airplane hangars, and other large structures, but has never before been used in residential construction.

How does this all really work? Take a look at the Techstyle Haus video.

The truly interdisciplinary team, including art and design students from RISD, engineering students from Brown, and architecture students from Erfurt (who specialize in Passive House design in particular), consulted with companies from all over the world as they designed and built their house. Shawmut Design and Construction trained the students in safety and helped with construction management. Saint-Gobain, maker of the Sheerfill II shell, and Birdair Inc., a company that built the sweeping fabric roof on the Denver International Airport, consulted on the outer shell. Viessmann and TACO HVAC helped with the HVAC system, and Zola Windows, a Passive House standard window company, fabricated the large windows that make up most of the house’s front and back walls. Other primary sponsors include Solar Decathlon Europe 2014, Pvilion, BMWi + EnOB, Schneider Electric, Ximedica and HB Welding. For a complete list of sponsors, visit: techstylehaus.com.

“Since the first day, I was fascinated by the idea of a textile building, particularly by the architectural possibilities, the innovation and the transformation of the ideas in practice,” said Richard Ziegler, Master student FHE. “It is a big chance to have the opportunity to be part of the project from first sketches through construction. To collaborate on an international team with two renowned American universities is a great experience.”

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 and tour the homes, and with that, the team is hoping to change the way people think about building materials and inspire them to push the limits of architecture, design and engineering.

“With this first-ever textile passive house, we’re hoping to change the way people think about building materials and inspire them to push the limits of architecture, design and engineering,” said Kim Dupont-Madinier, RISD architecture student.

“We are really pleased with how the complete house turned out – even better than our renderings. All of our ideas have come to fruition, where the visual outcome is beautiful and the results are so much more then what we expected. By experimenting on this scale, we’ve come to understand how the different fabrics are performing holistically to create a home.”  

They’re even thinking about the structure’s life after Versailles. After the competition, the team will bring the house to Domaine de Boisbuchet, the site of annual interdisciplinary art and design workshops, to act as student housing, and in doing so, promote the practice of sustainable living to future generations and serve as a model for a new type of living that works with all aspects of environment. The house will continue to be monitored by the team so that future iterations can be further improved.

Hi-resolution press photos: https://www.flickr.com/photos/124177118@N07/

RISD PR Jaime Marland: 401.427.6954 or jmarland@risd.edu

Brown PR Kevin Stacey: 401.863.3766 orkevin_stacey@brown.edu


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