Construction Underway on RISD/Brown/Erfurt Solar House

February 13, 2014

After nearly two years of planning and design, it’s time to swing some hammers.

Students from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Brown University and the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt, Germany have started construction of Techstyle Haus, their entry in the 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe. The competition, which takes place in France this July, pits 20 collegiate teams against each other to see who can build the most innovative, efficient and livable solar home.

Techstyle Haus will certainly be different. “This construction needs to be unlike any we’ve seen in a solar house before. It’s not enough to simply construct an energy-efficient house. It needs to consider – and invent – new ways of using solar technology. The most innovative aspect of the project is the textile wall assembly. Textiles are layered to create a high-performance exterior enclosure suitable for the Passive House Standard, while integrating textural interior textiles,” said Jonathan Knowles, architecture associate professor and RISD faculty advisor and project manager for the Techstyle Haus. “In addition, we are utilizing integrated flexible solar photovoltaic cells and solar thermal units to harness energy."

The outer shell of the 800 square foot house will be made not of wood or metal, but with a flexible textile called Sheerfill. The material is often used for roofs of domed stadiums and other large structures, but has never before been used in residential construction. The soft shell won’t reduce the home’s efficiency, however. The students-designed Techstyle Haus to meet the standard for a passive house, one that uses 90 percent less energy than a standard home. It will draw nearly all the power it needs from a flexible solar array attached to its curved textile roof.

The team’s preliminary proposal was accepted into the Solar Decathlon in December 2012. Since then, the students have been refining their design and engineering the house’s key systems. Now, it’s time for Techstyle Haus to take shape.

The work is taking place in a Cranston warehouse, a section of which was donated to the team by Ximedica, a Rhode Island-based design firm specializing in medical devices. The first step in the construction is building the wooden platform on which the house will sit, along with the wooden deck that will surround it. Then comes construction and assembly of a mechanical core that contains the home’s kitchen area and bathroom as well as electrical, heating and ventilation systems. The project will then move to Brown, where the students will erect the house’s five steel structural ribs and attach the textile shell.

“This is obviously a very exciting time for the team, who are seeing their designs take form at full scale,” said Derek Stein, professor of physics and a Brown faculty mentor for the project. “I’m most impressed with how the students have organized themselves. The management and communication system they spent over a year building is now proving its worth by guiding each student’s contribution into the whole.”

The students are currently working in the shadow of two wooden mock-ups of the house’s structural ribs. The 19-foot tall mock-ups are being used to refine the assembly process for the exterior wall and to help find the best way to attach insulation and interior textile walls – figuring out the best way to attach the textile shell to the frame is crucial.

From the beginning, safety has been in the front of the students’ minds. All team members completed a 10-hour OSHA safety course, and several safety leaders completed a 30-hour training.

Companies from all over the world are working with the students as consultants. Providence-based Shawmut Design and Construction trained the students in construction safety is helping with construction management. Saint Gobain, maker of the Sheerfill shell, and Birdair Inc., a company that built the sweeping fabric roof on the Denver International Airport, are consulting on the outer shell. Viessmann Manufacturing is helping with the HVAC system. Pazen, a German window maker, is supplying the large windows that will make up most of the house’s front and back walls.

It’s a group of companies that don’t often work together, says Gareth Rose, a sophomore engineering student who is part of team’s construction management group. “We’re doing things that have never been done before, for example, trying to figure out how the fabric will meet the steel and the window frame at the same place,” Rose said. “One company is making the window frame and another is making the steel and another is making the textile. We try to have sponsor workshops where all the sponsors come and they get to talk to each other. It’s been fun watching them interact.”

If all goes as planned, the structure will be mostly assembled (minus the large windows, which are being made in Europe) by April. After testing to make sure all its systems are working as they’re supposed to, the house will be carefully dismantled and packed into shipping containers. Then it’s off to the competition site at the Palace of Versailles just outside Paris. Once at the competition site, the students will have nine days to fully re-assembly the structure.

The students are confident that their novel design will help assembly in France go smoothly.

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. “Through the Domaine de Boisbuchet, Techstyle Haus will be a teaching tool where the team can share their technical innovation with the world’s youth and professionals; and in return critique, improve and promote the practice of sustainable living to generations in the countryside just as well as the city,” said RISD student Kim Dupont-Madinier, BFA/BArch 2015. As housing for future artists and designers, the legacy of Techstyle Haus will have the potential to extend far beyond its physical location.

“Techstyle Haus asks its inhabitants to challenge their thinking. It asks them to see sustainable living as an integrated system woven into each level of daily life—from the fabric of their walls, to the conversion of solar energy into heat, light, and power,” said RISD Film/Animation/Video junior Eloise Sherrid. “Rather than telling young designers that they must think differently, Techstyle Haus shows the path to doing so. It encourages visitors to draw their own conclusions and invites them to experiment, to question, and to explore. And perhaps most importantly, shows them the possibilities of what solar houses of the future can achieve, starting today.”

About the Solar Decathlon

The 2014 European Solar Decathlon (SDE) is an international competition that challenges 20 university teams to compete in ten contests to build a completely solar-powered house. Contests include Innovation, Architecture, Sustainability, and Energy Efficiency. As a highly visible display of sustainable living practices, the SDE competition promotes renewable energy exploration and environmental responsibility. For more information about the competition, visit