After collaborating with Parsons the New School for Design to bring Empowerhouse to the 2011 Solar Decathlon, a student team from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., is now gearing up to make the nearly 3,000 mile trek to Orange County, Calif., for the 2013 edition of the Solar Decathlon in early October.
 
I recently had the opportunity to preview the team's net-zero creation, Ecohabit, during its assembly and testing phase on a vacant lot near the Stevens campus along the banks of the Hudson River (with the Manhattan skyline in full display in the background, it’s a rather jaw-droppingly photogenic pre-competition construction site). Come September, the home will be broken down into three parts and transported via flatbed trucks to sunny Southern California where it will be completely reassembled alongside 19 other student-designed solar-powered abodes in the Decathlon's new home of Great Orange County Park in Irvine.
 
If you're not already familiar, the Department of Energy-sponsored Solar Decathlon is a biennial event in which 20 collegiate teams compete to design and build the most attractive, energy-efficient, and cost-effective solar-powered home. A winning team — the University of Maryland took top honors in 2011 — emerges after a series of 10 juried and measured contests that coincide with a public open house period and related events. 
 
While visiting Ecohabit, a handful of team members including Communications Leader Zac Moy and Industry Assistant Professor and team Project Manager Dr. Mark Pollock showed me around the two-years-in-the-making home; a 920-square-foot labor of love that brought together students from nine different academic departments (interestingly, Stevens is the only Decathlon team this year without a proper architecture department) to conceive an innovative example of energy-efficient home building — a high-tech yet user-friendly abode that’s sure to offer up some fierce competition come Decathlon time.
While still a work in progress, the one-bedroom home, which will be open for public tours later this month before it departs for California, was designed with an overriding problem-solving philosophy that aims to “redefine the relationship between a home and its user.” During my tour of the home, Moy explained that EcoHabit is an answer to the challenge of “how do we take something that already exists and make it better?”
 
For starters, partly because EcoHabit was conceived by a student team heavily composed of engineering and computer science students and not architects prone to rubberneck-inducing flights of fancy, the red cedar-clad home isn’t wildly avant-garde in design like past Decathlon entries that have resembled photovoltaic-topped spaceships and not single-family homes. EcoHabit was designed to be comfortable, attractive, highly marketable, and, well, inconspicuous — an energy-efficient home geared for an ever-evolving young family that wants to go green but doesn't necessary want to perform any shouting from the rooftop in the process. And as the first Solar Decathlon entry to feature Dow solar shingles instead of a bulky rooftop array, it’s also a home that won’t irk the neighbors or HOAs.
 
In other words, it blends in while also quietly standing apart.

Split into wet and dry modules to minimize the distribution of plumbing and boasting a regenerative liquid desiccant system in lieu of a traditional dehumidifier, EcoHabit demonstrates that it really isn’t all that hard to go green if your home is also up for the challenge. Equipped with a proprietary energy management system — the super-intuitive brain of the home, if you will —created by the Stevens team, EcoHabit showcases smart home technology at its very smartest:
 
Fully equipped with Smart Sensors, the house is able to compile data from its inhabitants and the exterior environment and adjust accordingly to provide the most efficient levels of operation at any given time. With this technology, the home is able to monitor specific weather patterns, the habits of the users, and the energy usage in order to create the most comfortable and energy efficient living environment possible. These sensors also have the ability to provide the homeowner with hot water on demand when it is needed, ensuring that no energy goes to waste by unnecessarily waiting for the water to warm. All of these controls are made easily accessible to the user at the touch of a button through customized smart device application software.
 
Featuring flexible living spaces and modular furniture created specifically for the home by a New Jersey-based fabricator, EcoHabit is not only exceptionally smart — the home is also highly adaptable, designed to morph over time as its inhabitants’ living requirements change over the years: kids arrive, kids depart, mother-in-laws move-in, someone starts working from home, etc.
 
And EcoHabit was designed specifically for Southern California, it’s a home that emphasis outdoor living with a generous wraparound deck for entertaining (like the siding and the dramatic rain screen covering the home’s northern façade, the home's decking is Western red cedar) shaded in parts by a generous roof overhang.
An abundance of clerestory windows promote natural daylighting while oversized folding glass doors from NanaWall further help to marry interior and exterior living spaces. In terms of visual appeal, an insulating green roof and a green wall help to reduce rainwater run-off and improve air quality. A 135-gallon rainwater cistern is connected to a drip irrigation system that helps to keep the homes’ landscaping lovely and lush in arid climates.
 
Inside the bamboo-floored home, the temperature is self-regulated with the help of soy-based bio phase-change materials (bio PCMs). Layered within the walls along with spray foam insulation, the bio PCMs harness the home’s heat and energy during the day and release it during the night for optimum comfort and energy-savings (click here for a handy-dandy infographic on bio PCM technology created by the Team Stevens).
 
In terms of the home's post-competition afterlife, this is an important aspect for the Stevens Team as the aforementioned Empowerhouse was modified and relocated to Washington D.C.'s Deanwood neighborhood where it became Habitat for Humanity's first-ever passive project (although Empowerhose placed 13th overall in the 2011 Solar Decathlon, it placed first in the newly instated Affordability contest).
 
While EcoHabit will not go on to become a Habitat home post-competition like Empowerhouse did, it will go on to serve a greater good as a resource center for veterans on the campus of a yet-to-be-named university in Southern California. In addition to serving that school's veteran community, the home will continue to serve as a living laboratory of sorts with Stevens students and faculty measuring its energy performance from across the country.
Already flexing considerable chops in the always-important communications department, the EcoHabit homepage is filled with plenty more easy-to-digest information on the home’s technology and design. And if you’re in the New York City area (Team Stevens is the only team hailing from the NYC metro area in this year’s Decathlon), be sure to keep abreast of updates, including information on public viewings and events, at the team’s Twitter and Facebook accounts.
 
Best of luck to the Team Stevens as they continue to prep, test, and conduct tours in solar-happy Jersey before heading to the O.C. for the big event!
 

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