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These students designed a 100% solar house that laughs at hurricanes

Sure House: Hip, modern, and hurricane-proof.
Sure House: Hip, modern, and hurricane-proof.
(DOE)

"Sustainability" and "resilience" are the two most annoyingly overused words in today's green-o-sphere, but occasionally something comes along to remind us what the real deal looks like. In this case, it's a new project from students at New Jersey's Stevens Institute of Technology, known as the SURE (SUstainable REsilience) House, or Sure House.

Sure House just won the 2015 Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the US Department of Energy. The decathlon has been held every few years since 2002; this was the seventh, in Irvine, California. Each time, 20 teams of students compete to design and build the most efficient, attractive solar-powered house. (The event is open to the public.)

solar decathlon 2015
The 2015 Solar Decathlon in Irvine, California.
(DOE)

These are not meant to be high-end demonstration houses for rich people. They are supposed to be designed for an actual market. Each house is judged based on 10 categories:

solar decathlon categories (Surehouse)

This year, Sure House came out on top.

Before looking at the house, though, I just want to take a moment to celebrate the folks who designed and built it. I write about a lot of depressing shit — dire climate forecasts, sclerotic politics, dumb people — and it's easy to get gloomy. What gives me hope is the knowledge that there are armies of young nerds out there getting to work.

They realize that dedicating themselves to a sustainable future doesn't mean being an "environmentalist." It means being an architect, an engineer, an energy modeler, or an entrepreneur, designing and building the better world that others (cough cough bloggers) only talk about.

So congrats to the fantastic team at Stevens and to all the teams who competed this year. You're an inspiration.

surehouse team wins
The Stevens team celebrates. (Look at these nerds! I could hug this whole picture.)
(DOE)

Sure House is a New Jersey shore house meant to stand up to the next Hurricane Sandy

The goal of the Sure House project was a house that could stand up to the severe weather that's increasingly slated for the North Atlantic coast. It's slightly elevated and designed to weather up to 5 feet of flooding — the bottom portion of the building envelope is completely sealed and waterproof.

surehouse flood levels
DFE = design flood elevation.
(Surehouse)

Sure House meets Passive House standards, which means the building envelope is super-duper insulated (with a "mineral wool material" that dries well and resists mold in humid climates) and tightly sealed, cutting off virtually all air exchange between the interior and exterior.

surehouse envelope (Surehouse)

Fresh air is brought in and circulated through an "energy recovery ventilator," which takes the heat out of the exiting air and adds it to the incoming air (or vice versa), radically reducing the energy needed to heat and cool the house.

All that insulating, along with energy-efficient appliances, means that Sure House uses about 90 percent less energy than the average New Jersey house. That level of energy demand can be met entirely with solar panels — and it's the clever use of solar panels that's the coolest thing about Sure House.

Before geeking out on that subject, though it's worth noting...

It's also just a nice-looking house

Sure House is 1,000 square interior feet, though that's practically matched by the large outdoor living spaces. It's got a main kitchen/living room, two bedrooms, and one bathroom. The main room opens out to a south-facing deck.

surehouse (Surehouse)

Here's a video walkthrough:

A hybrid solar system keeps power on even during a blackout

Sure House is topped with 32 conventional solar photovoltaic panels, which are grid-connected and provide 10,000 watts, enough power to completely offset the house's (minuscule) power consumption.

But what many people don't understand is that typical grid-tied solar panels provide zero "energy independence." They cannot "island" themselves from the grid; when it's down, they're down. And coastal storms frequently mean power outages.

So the Stevens team came up with a clever solution. On the storm shutters on the south side of the house is a second PV array — this one composed of thin-film solar panels integrated into the building materials themselves. This second array, which produces about 3,000 watts, is not grid-connected; its primary day-to-day use is to heat water.

surehouse hybrid solar system (Surehouse)

When the grid goes down, a transformerless inverter switches over to the thin-film array, which can not only keep appliances running but also powers USB chargers on the exterior of the house, so that neighbors without power can charge their devices in a blackout.

surehouse power chargers (Surehouse)

Nifty, huh?

Thin-film solar panels have typically been more expensive than silicon panels, but the Stevens team notes that the prices are rapidly falling. And being able to integrate the panels into building materials opens an enormous array of new options:

Solar power doesn’t have to be an afterthought, but rather a driving factor in design from very early in the process. Once builders and designers embrace this idea, the possibilities are endless.

Agreed! And I said so, in passing, here.

Building-integrated solar storm protection makes Sure House into a resilient Transformer

The shutters in which the thin-film panels are embedded are themselves extremely cool. They are super lightweight, so it's easy for a single person to move them up or down. Here's what they look like when they are fully up — a nice overhang that provides a little bit of shade on the porch:

surehouse shaded porch (Surehouse)

Here they are fully extended, creating a weatherproof cover for the porch for times of intense sunshine or rain:

surehouse covered porch (Surehouse)

And then, the coup de grace: When a hurricane or intense storm kicks up, the shutters can be lowered to completely cover the southern facade, protecting it from wind and debris:

surehouse covered (Surehouse)

When the shutters are snapped down, they create a completely sealed, waterproof barrier. And those aren't glass solar panels, remember. They're embedded in tough plastic that's meant to survive being battered by a storm.

So when it's nice weather, the shutters gather power. When it's nasty, they block out storm damage:

surehouse shutters (Surehouse)

(The shutters only protect the south side. There are pop-in panels for windows on the other sides, which also snap in to become waterproof.)

What Sure House means

So that's Sure House: a shore house meant for the volatile coastal future.

surehouse (Surehouse)

I don't want to burden a fun post with a bunch of ponderous wonkery, but just a few quick reflections about what this means:

  • Solar panels are cool, but the real action here, and in the building space generally, is efficiency. Using Passive House techniques in building construction is pretty much the fastest, cheapest, easiest way to reduce energy use (thus lowering the target that must be hit by clean energy). If building efficiency were an energy source, the entire world would be swooning over it. Cheaper than fossil fuels! Zero carbon! Available to everyone! But it's not, so it gets a fraction of the press it deserves. (For more on this, see Architecture 2030.)
  • Making Sure House both sustainable/resilient and affordable means making it, by the standards of typical middle-class US homes, fairly small. Personally I find it appealing — the space is open, breezy, and well laid out, and I like the integration with outdoor spaces — but if Americans want their giant houses and sustainability, they're going to have to pay extra, at least up front, at least for now.
  • Nothing would drive down the cost of the building techniques used in Sure House faster than wide deployment. It's difficult to see how that's going to happen with sufficient scale and speed without policy. Seems like making such standards mandatory for new construction would be one of the quickest ways for cities and regions to clean up their act (New York City is, predictably, on it).

Congrats again to the Stevens team and all the other nerds out there building a sustainable future. Maybe some day you'll have politicians worthy of your cleverness and idealism.