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Powerhouse: Tufts Competes In The Solar Decathlon

News & Features | October 26, 2009

It was a Sunday night at the Curio House, the solar-powered, energy-efficient brainchild of Tufts University and the Boston Architectural College. Team Boston was taking its turn in the kitchen, making dinner for some members of the 19 other teams who had shipped their no-more-than-800-square-foot houses from around the United States and the world to the Capital Mall in DC Even the salmon and vegetarian sides would reflect the ideas that spawned the creation of the house itself. “We want to promote as much vegetable-eating as possible because you have less of a footprint when you eat vegetarian food,” said Ben Steinberg, chair of the project’s policy committee and a Masters candidate in Urban and Environmental Planning and Policy at Tufts. In addition to cooking with solar-powered appliances, the team gathered some of the vegetables and herbs for the meal from the garden attached to the house. The garden is irrigated by a cistern that catches rainwater from the roof.

The Curio team had finally made it to the scoring stages of the fourth annual Solar Decathlon competition, a process that had begun in 2007. For two years, Tufts and the Boston Architectural College worked in collaboration to create a sustainable, livable structure that could compete with the best and brightest the world over. “Our project’s goal was twofold,” Steinberg explained, “To create a building that is sustainable, that produces net zero energy, that can recycle materials, that is very efficient… and also that teaches how to be more sustainable and efficient. I think we met both of those goals.”

Working out of the Tufts Institute of the Environment, students and faculty members took on a multitude of roles to make the university’s first Solar Decathlon a success. Antje Danielson, the program manager of TIE, said that students tackled much of the engineering, researching, and fundraising for the project. In addition, students are now completing a documentary about the decathlon.

Tufts senior Matthew Thoms, the project’s head engineer, led a team of students through the process of researching and constructing the house. “The Tufts students have been doing a lot of research… on what are the best engineering systems to put into the house, deciding on the solar panels to use, and… Tufts has also been working on the construction of the house over the summer,” explained Thoms.

The BAC collaborated with Tufts students to design the house. “They have a lot of great experience on putting together construction documents and managing a construction site, and so they have a lot of that kind of real world, on-the-ground experience,” Thoms said of the BAC students.

They had previously completed the 2007 solar decathlon in tandem with MIT students but had less than abundant support from the MIT administration, according to Danielson. Yet with a mere two-year timeline and the challenges of raising money in the midst of the economic crisis, Tufts and the BAC still built the Curio house for less than a quarter the cost of BAC’s previous house. “It’s amazing, under all these circumstances, what the students pulled off,” said Danielson.

For Team Boston, a key part of the mission was ensuring that the house would be relevant–and affordable–to the people who would see it. “We wanted it to be not the house of the future, but the house of today, and so we wanted it to be very accessible to the people who are going to see it on the mall, and so 90 percent of the items in our house are completely off the shelf,” said Thoms.

The team is already working with two modular home companies in Massachusetts looking to buy the exclusive rights to the Curio brand. “We spent about $320,000 on whole project, the cost of the building and everything that went along with it,” said Steinberg. “We’re hoping that if it was sold on market and it was reproduced, it would be closer to $220,000, which we find is affordable, and if you put affordable housing subsidies with that, it’s even more affordable.”

The final destination of the Curio House affirms the principles of social equity that went into its construction. The house was sold to a housing assistance program called Community Green, where it will house formerly homeless people who will learn how to build solar homes and market their skills as builders.

Instead of scrunching the model of a big house into the 800-square-foot limit, the Boston team created a design that could adapt to a variety of day-to-day usages, said Thoms. Apart from the bathroom, the rest of the house is a kind of combined kitchen, living room, and bedroom, with adaptable furniture pieces. “Our bed can fold up into the wall, and we have a big furniture piece that houses our TV, and a desk that can be pushed . . . up against the wall if you’re having people over,” Thoms said. The home is designed to house one to two people.

The solar-powered home is built to survive and thrive even under the often-gloomy skies of New England. Over the course of a year, the house produces more energy than its inhabitants would ever need. The building is tied to an electrical grid so that in the summer, the extra energy is sold back to the power company, which sells part of it back to the home in the winter.

Team Boston engineered two new technologies for the house. The first is a heat wall, which resembles a large pane of glass on the side of the home. “It looks like a standard window but it’s actually about two inches thick of a water solution,” explained Thoms. “When the low winter sun is heating this window, it’s heating up all this water between the panes of glass all throughout the day, and then at night it radiates that heat that’s stored in the water back into living space, so it keeps house nice and warm until about five or six in the morning.”

The second technology is a feedback system, which operates on principles of biomimicry, imitating nature’s solutions to problems. The system gathers data about how much electricity the house’s systems are producing and consuming, and amalgamates the data into a pulsing light that mimics a “heartbeat” of sorts. “You know, grandma knows, the little kid knows that if it’s a slow, steady pulse, then everything’s working fine. But if it’s a fast pulse, then you know something’s wrong, and you can go to your computer program and check it out,” said Steinberg. This feedback system is a nonintrusive way of educating homeowners about their home and the energy they are using.

The future of the Curio brand is rife with possibilities. While the original Curio is built to house a single person or a couple, the core design can be built off of in any direction. “The next version could maybe have three or four people, have a family in there,” Steinberg said.

Tufts will not be participating in the 2011 Solar Decathlon, but no word has yet been given on 2013. From this Decathlon, Tufts has gained publicity and an exceptional experience for its students, said Danielson. The university could learn even more from the second time around. “From what I’ve heard, the competition just gets better,” said Steinberg. “This is the fourth one, and each time the houses get more elaborate and intricate and well thought out, and you learn from the competitions of the past.”