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Nature Watch: UB students building GRoW Home to compete in Solar Decathlon

The Buffalo area has plenty of historic homes: not only Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin Martin and Graycliff houses, but also many along Delaware and Elmwood avenues and in the Hamlin Park and Nottingham districts.

But we have a house currently under construction that should be a new candidate for historic recognition; it is being built today in a warehouse off River Road in Tonawanda.

If for no other reason than the short-term history of this house, it should be recognized, because this house will not only be initially constructed on a concrete warehouse floor, but it will then be dismantled, its sections loaded on trucks and shipped to California where it will be reassembled. Once it has served its brief purpose there, it will be dismantled again and returned to Buffalo, where it will find its final location.

This is the so-called GRoW Home being constructed by University at Buffalo architecture, engineering, management and environmental science students to compete with 16 international teams in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Solar Decathlon. Opponents will include university teams from Yale, Clemson, Vanderbilt and California but also multirepresentational teams like the University of Florida working with the University of Singapore; the University of Texas with University of Munich, Germany; and Western New England University teamed with two Central American colleges. Buffalo has a regional competitor as well: Alfred University with Alfred College of Technology.

This is a big deal for Buffalo. Simply being chosen to compete puts the university on the map and now thousands of hours of student effort are being devoted, according to contest stipulations, to design, construct and operate a solar-powered house that is cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive. The winner of this biennial competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

This year’s Decathlon will take place in Irvine, Calif., from Oct. 8 to 18. In addition to the overall prize, teams compete for 10 awards: juried contests for architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications and affordability; and measured contests for comfort zone, appliances, home life, commuting and energy balance.

Much work has already gone into UB’s entry. The student designers identify it as a GRoW Home, their acronym representing Garden, Relax or Work. Its unique approach to sustainable urban living here relates to local farming and gardening neighborhood initiatives. GRoW Home residents will replace energy-intensive food production by growing their own fresh, healthy produce.

Here is how the team describes some of the house’s attributes: “In support of food production, GRoW Home features a glass-enclosed solarium that provides ample light for plants during the growing season and passively heats the house in winter. The solarium can be continuously tuned to the appropriate conditions for growing and living. In the summer, operable cloth shades on the roof and southern facades shade and cool while vents and windows allow heat to escape.

“Durability, comfort and efficiency are depicted in the functional layout as well as the chosen materials. GRoW Home features ‘work’ and ‘relax’ boxes with windows that allow natural light to enter and give occupants views to the outdoors and into the solarium. The work box is highly functional and designed to be easily cleaned. The relax box is compact and designed to provide a warm, cozy retreat in colder months.”

Some of the house features include its small but expandable size, a combination of active and passive features providing twice the energy it consumes, an indoor climate tuned by the user and separate areas for growing, working and relaxing.

Among the dozens of student participants are project managers Chris Osterhoudt, Ian Farneth and Duane Warren, and construction managers Matthew Kreidler and Joseph Tuberdyck. The project’s lead faculty adviser is Martha Bohm, assistant professor of architecture.

Corporate project sponsors include LP Ciminelli, NYSERDA, Montante Solar, Watts Architecture and Engineering, Thermal Foams, CannonDesign and LaBella Associates, but much more corporate and individual fiscal support is needed. To learn more about the project or to provide that well-deserved support, visit the website, or contact Robert Hill of the School of Architecture and Planning at