Nov. 4- 18, 2005
Vol. 35, Issue 19
Back Issues
Pay raises
ROTC: Molding military leaders

Warner: Idealism, not cynicism

Gibbs wins Thomas Jefferson Award
Edmundson: Failure is good
Moreno elected to Institute of Medicine
Letter to the editor
Green, Hamlin and Hudson elected AAAS Fellows
Rainey: Campaign will be 'defining event'
Peterson wins Lifetime Achievement Award
Researchers building terahertz spectrum device to study biological molecules
Students construct first ecoMOD house
Better voting machines
Scurry is new interim chief human resource officer
Algorithms with an edge
Math, 'Queen of the Sciences'
Fall drama festival
Street children in Kenya find homes
Wahoo space tourist Gregory Olsen to speak
Creative Circle


Hangar to Home: Students construct first ecoMOD house

This series of photos illustrates the process of transporting and installing the ecoMOD homes on-site.

By C. Thomas Hogge

Kyle Sturgeon (B.S. Architecture ’05) stands in the second floor of the OUTin house, the newest addition to 71/2 Street in Charlottesville’s Fifeville neighborhood. “The light in here is great. You plan for these things, but this is amazing.”

The planning and design of the house is the result of a collaboration between students in architecture, landscape architecture, planning and engineering. The brainchild of John Quale, assistant professor of Architecture, ecoMOD is a research and design/build project organized as a series of design studios intended to produce an ecological, modular and affordable housing system using sustainable and passive design strategies.

The 1,244-square-foot, two-story OUTin house, with three bedrooms and 11/2 baths, is being built with funds from Piedmont Housing Alliance (PHA) at a cost of about $125,000. PHA is dedicated to improving the lives of low- and moderate-income families and individuals by creating housing and community development opportunities throughout the Thomas Jefferson Planning District in Virginia. Through the partnership, a minimum of three 1,000 – 1,250-square-foot homes will be placed in established communities in the Piedmont region and sold to families, with down payment and financing assistance from the Alliance.

In the first summer of the partnership, Sturgeon and the rest of the ecoMOD team turned the decommissioned, U.Va.-owned Milton Airfield into a fabrication site. Eight free-standing modules were built using lightweight, pre-cut structural insulated panels (SIPs), a wall system used in “green” housing. The SIPs — panels of foam sandwiched between wood faces — and a rainwater collection system were the two main ecological thrusts of the design.

“These things are incredibly strong,” Barrett Eastwood (B.S. Architecture ’05) said of the panels that comprise the modular walls. “We loaded them up on the trucks, set them down, and they took it really well.” On Sep. 7 and 8, the modules were moved from the hangar to the urban infill site in Fifeville, where a foundation was laid in late August.

The profusion of light in the house is just one result of strategic design decisions and a benefit of the placement of the house. “We couldn’t afford photovoltaics (that turn solar energy into electric energy), but we made a decision to do everything possible in the infrastructure to increase the home’s efficiency,” Quale said. This includes a pair of 1,700 gallon cisterns used in a rainwater-collection system that will provide potable water to the house, as well as the use of SIPs, which offer both structural stability and insulation. Two or more windows ventilate every room of the house, so named for a design that merges, visually and experientially, outside and inside spaces.

The dialogue between exterior and interior is furthered with flexible spaces like a sleeping porch — with the same square-footage as the master bedroom — and a fold-out table adjacent to the kitchen that offers optional additional counter space. Such flexibility is a hallmark of the OUTin house, the design of which is based on the principles of “ecoMOD,” or economical, ecological, modern and modular.

Flexibility also has been a strength of the student designers.“They faced complex design considerations with extraordinary resourcefulness and maturity,” Quale said. “There were two major site changes, as well as complicated programmatic and technical issues — [the students] threw themselves at those issues enthusiastically.” They have also been adept at modifying the designs based on issues arising in the construction phases, as the house’s kitchenette reveals. Moving the refrigerator just a few inches required the students to modify the pre-fabricated cabinetry.

The potentially “leftover” new space next to the wall allowed the students to create a wider backsplash that can be used as a shelf and also will have electrical outlets for appliances.

It is widely known that prefabricated building techniques can save time, money and materials. But the potential environmental benefits of this method are largely unrecognized by the housing industry. The inherent benefits of off-site, centralized fabrication include climate-controlled, year-round construction; better quality control; and a smaller number of trips for fewer people to construction sites – all of which means significant reduction in the energy required to construct a building. Waste is also visibly reduced, as the remarkably organized construction site at 71/2 Street reveals.

But this first phase of the project won’t end when the OUTin house is occupied. Analysis is of primary importance to Quale and the ecoMOD team. “Often designers simply design and move on, leaving the client to resolve [any issues that might come up]. The evaluation process is crucial to get the benefits of learning from these prototypes.” Quale will lead “Evaluating ecoMOD,” the first of two sequential courses, to monitor the thermal environment and energy use; conduct a post-occupancy evaluation, including interviews with the new owners, neighbors and PHA; and analyze the life-cycle of the building and landscape.

Measurements from the actual building will be compared to design simulations and to data from another recently built house of the same size.

Engineering students in a similar course led by Professor Paxton Marshall of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, with whom Quale collaborated on the award-winning 2002 U.Va. Solar Decathlon Team, put together a monitoring strategy for the house, to be implemented this semester. Results of these efforts will directly inform future ecoMOD iterations, which could lead to a system, which modular home building manufacturers in the mid-Atlantic region might adapt. Results of the analyses will be posted on the ecoMOD Web site throughout the multi-year process. The team’s decision-making strategy focuses on balancing environmental, social, technical and financial issues of the project. Making these decisions available to the general public and architecture community via the Internet allows for the exchange of methodology critical feedback, Quale said.

“ecoMOD has become a truly intra- and interdisciplinary project. From the beginning, we've been nterdisciplinary, with supplemental faculty advising from Marshall in engineering and Nisha Botchwey from planning. Now in the evaluation phase, commerce, economics and environmental science students have joined the project, with additional support from faculty members Mark White of commerce, Julie Zimmerman from civil engineering, Paul Crumpler from Facilities Management and Veronica Warnock from planning. The students and faculty are learning to understand the language of the other disciplines.”

The course has been selected by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for participation in the P3 Award university design competition for sustainable design. Winning teams receive additional funding for their projects. In addition, the project was selected by the American Institute of Architect’s Committee on the Environment as one of 11 exemplary curriculum initiatives in American architecture schools with a focus on sustainable design.

In the meantime, construction continues at 71/2 Street. “It’s a great opportunity for students who get to push their project to a certain degree in the studio and then actually get to come out and build it,” Tom Holloman, project manager, said. “In the end, [students are able] to actually apply their knowledge from school and ultimately give back to the community.”

Those who are enrolled in Piedmont Housing Alliance’s affordable housing programs will be some of the first to live in the energy efficient homes.
And if the OUTin house is any indication, ecoMOD is certain to bring a little more light into their lives as well.

Visit for complete project information.


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