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High-Tech HAUS Takes Shape

High-Tech HAUS Takes Shape

Although summer feels far away, a team of students from RISD, Brown and the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt in Germany is hard at work building a full-scale house in time for this summer’s 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe competition in Versailles, France. The “Inside/Out” team – which includes 27 RISD students – is putting in long hours to construct the textile-wrapped Techstyle Haus, one of 20 student-designed solar houses in the competition. Work is currently taking place on the outskirts of Providence in an enormous warehouse space donated by Ximedica, a medical product development firm cofounded by RISD alumni Aidan Petrie MID 85 and Stephen Lane 85 ID.

“We’re currently building components of the house and wooden mock-ups of its structural ribs [which will ultimately be made of steel] in order to test various systems, such as insulation,” notes construction project manager Sina Almassi MArch 14, who has taken a leave of absence from RISD in order to work full-time on the project. “The floors, plumbing and other mechanical systems are all coming together simultaneously.” But when it comes time to fully assemble and test the functionality of the high-tech, 800-square-foot house this spring, the construction site will move to an outdoor location at Brown.

“This construction needs to be unlike any we’ve seen in a solar house before,” notes RISD Associate Professor of Architecture Jonathan Knowles BArch 84, who has led the team as project advisor since this latest Solar Decathlon effort began in 2012. “It’s not enough to simply construct an energy-efficient house. It needs to consider – and invent – new ways of using solar technology.” Knowles adds that the most innovative aspect of the design 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. In addition, we’re utilizing integrated flexible solar photovoltaic cells and solar thermal units to harness energy.”

“When the house is shipped to France this summer, these modular floor sections will be reassembled for the competition and will sit on adjustable steel footings,” explains Brown engineering student Gareth Rose, pointing at a stack of completed sections. As a key player in the ongoing effort to raise the estimated $700,000-plus it will take to complete the project, he appreciates the support of sponsors such as Providence-based Shawmut Design and Construction, textile manufacturer Saint-Gobain and Birdair, the company consulting on the tensile shell.

“We’re doing things that have never been done before,” Rose says. “For example, we’re trying to figure out how the fabric will meet the steel and the window frame at the same place. One company is making the window frame, another is making the steel and another is making the textile. We try to have sponsor workshops where all the sponsors come and talk to each other. It has been fun watching them interact.”

RISD undergraduate Kim DuPont-Madinier BArch 15, whose French will come in handy when the team travels to Versailles, is equally excited about the progress being made this semester. “STOLL has donated fireproof yarns,” she says, “and we’re creating the first knitted home interior of its kind. It will be one continuous woven fabric. The final ribs have to go up first, and then we’ll be able to install the material.” Although models up to this point have shown the house’s interior as off-white, the team is working with pixilated photographs of the green fields of Domaine de Boisbuchet – the French architecture and design institute where Techstyle Haus will ultimately be placed – to bring the outdoors inside.

As DuPont-Madinier told a group of high school students visiting the construction site on a field trip, this project is unique in that it provides hands-on experience college students wouldn’t normally get until after graduation, once they’re working in their respective fields. “We’re learning about real-world plumbing, electrical planning and construction,” she says. “Every one of us had to get OSHA-certified before we were allowed to start building.”

Simone Solondz