Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009


What do you get when you combine Rice student innovation; a commission to build a zero-energy home; and Project Row Houses, a neighborhood-based art and cultural organization that seeks to develop housing for low-to-moderate-income residents of Houston’s Third Ward? The ZEROW HOUSE, of course.

ZEROW HOUSE is an entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s upcoming Solar Decathlon, a housing competition in which teams of college and university students vie to design, build and operate the most attractive, effective and energy-efficient solar-powered house. The Rice student team was the only one from Texas among the 20 teams chosen from around the world to participate. This year’s competition will be held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in October.

“Our students have worked at the highest level to create this house, which is on par with professional work,” said Danny Samuels, the Harry K. Smith Professor in the Practice of Architecture at Rice. “Through working with Project Row Houses, we have taken the next step in providing affordable, appropriate technologies for people who need it.”

Like other Solar Decathlon houses, ZEROW HOUSE will be able to produce all the energy needed for its operation on-site using photovoltaic solar panels and other green technologies. The judges will look at 10 specific areas of competition: architecture, engineering, market viability, communications, comfort, appliances, hot water, lighting, energy balance and transportation. Each house should produce enough electricity and hot water to perform all the functions of a home, from powering lights and electronics to cooking and washing clothes and dishes.

Unlike the other entries, however, ZEROW HOUSE was designed with affordability and a specific site in mind. While other entries operate on half-a-million-dollar budgets, ZEROW HOUSE was created with a building and material budget of about $150,000 in a way that will allow its design and concepts to be replicated in six energy-efficient one- and two-bedroom homes on two 50-by-80-foot lots in Houston’s Third Ward.

Design Challenges

Engineering a house for Houston was a challenge. The team specially tailored the house to withstand the rigors of Houston’s Gulf Coast climate by limiting the number of windows and using a high-reflectivity roof membrane. Both reduced the solar heat load during the day. For the same reason, some of the walls were thickened to limit the amount of heat that might seep into the house during the hot months. The team also used a foundation and materials that could withstand hurricane-force winds.

“The Solar Decathlon offers the challenge of providing innovation and quality of design within a limited space,” said Nonya Grenader, professor in the practice in the Rice School of Architecture. “By skillfully placing elements that provide all services — a wet core — and natural light and ventilation — a light core — the students began to define and transform the small building envelope into much more.”

One of the most vexing design parameters had nothing to do with energy efficiency or cost. It had to do with transportation. Aside from the international competitors, the Rice team has the farthest to travel for the competition. While the team members will have five days to reassemble ZEROW HOUSE in the National Mall, they had to find a way to transport it and make it roadworthy while taking into account laws from each state they will travel through on their journey to D.C.

The team worked on the house for about a year and a half, and its efforts were aided by more than 100 people from disciplines across campus.

“The main challenge was designing within all these limits,” said Roque Sanchez ’09, the environmental engineering student who entered Rice in the competition. “We had great ideas, but we had these boundaries to factor in. It inspired us to do more and push our own limitations. I’m still shocked at how everything came together. We’ve had so much support, and you can see that in the house itself.”

Sanchez said various sponsors from the Houston community pitched in and offered services and supplies, though the costs were figured into the home’s final price tag.

“Many of the energy-efficient materials and technologies featured in ZEROW HOUSE, such as solar panels and solar water heaters, can be implemented in almost any home,” said senior Allison Elliott, one of the student leaders. “A house can be both environmentally friendly and affordable.”

Collaborative Effort

The team worked on the house for about a year and a half, and its efforts were aided by more than 100 people from disciplines across campus.

“This was a great project to give our engineering students more hands-on experience,” said Brent Houchens, assistant professor in mechanical engineering and materials science and engineering faculty lead for ZEROW. “They had to learn how to optimize the systems such as the solar array and solar water heater to make the house functional but as cost effective as possible. The collaboration between them and the architecture students and faculty has given them very rewarding real-world experience.”

ZEROW HOUSE is just the latest project in an affordable housing initiative and long-term collaboration between the Rice Building Workshop and Project Row Houses. In the past, Rice students have designed and constructed other new housing on property owned by Row House Community Development Corporation, including the Six-Square House and a row of eight recently completed duplexes. The direct inspiration for ZEROW was the 500-square-foot XS (extra small) House constructed in 2003 at a cost of $25,000.

“The Rice Building Workshop allows students to experience architecture at full scale, working in a spirit of collaboration,” Grenader said. “The Solar Decathlon brought a talented mix of students together who benefited greatly from the larger Houston community. Many individuals and companies gave their support and expertise in realizing the project.”

After the Solar Decathlon, ZEROW HOUSE will be transported back to its permanent location in Houston, where two local residents will actually call it home.