Last week, the University of Maryland’s entry for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2017 was loaded onto flatbed trucks and began its 1,600-mile journey to Denver—and, hopefully, to victory. In just under two weeks, Team Maryland will debut its innovative housing prototype, reACT (which stands for resilient Adaptive Climate Technology), designed to resiliently adapt to diverse climates.
“We’re so excited to get to this milestone,” said Professor of Architecture Garth Rockcastle, who is one of the project’s principal investigators. “We’ve been working at a neck-breaking pace these past few weeks. We’re all looking forward to the excitement of being with our competitors in the Solar Village and seeing how we compare.”
Inspired by both technology and tradition, reACT connects the indigenous world with western scientific innovations to deliver a sustainable, regenerative, almost “living” model that intends to change the way the industry approaches housing. reACT is inspired by long-held principles of Native American cultures who, for centuries, have harvested the resources of the surrounding environment while minimizing waste and impact. With the addition of cutting-edge technologies, sustainable materials and an intuitive, modular design, Team Maryland has devised a housing model that is completely solar-powered, water conservative, affordable and regenerative for diverse communities and ecosystems.
reACT goes beyond the solar-powered requirements of the Decathlon, capitalizing on the talents of UMD’s architecture, engineering and life science programs to devise several innovative features, including:
- Modular construction: its kit-of-parts allows for endless design schemes based on size, climate and budget. It also allows for low-cost, mass production that can be efficiently transported to the building site and assembled in the span of a week by local labor with relatively little specialized training.
- A mechanical core, which contains high-performance, interactive, environmentally sensitive automated system, coded by the students of Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, Dr. Raymond Adomaitis. It manages the flow of water, air and energy, and directs architectural responses throughout the house, such as the Greencourt sky vents. All the other components—which can be customized to the needs of the family—clip onto this central core.
- A Greencourt, which is the team’s mating of a greenhouse and a courtyard, is the social heart of the house. Its flexible sliding doors and sky vents frame an open-air retreat in warm weather and insulated conservatory during winter months. Aside from acting as a social gathering space, the Greencourt is integral to the home’s resource capture. Solar energy generated by the Greencourt is harvested by the heat pumps of an innovative HVAC system developed by Research Professor of Engineering Dr. Yunho Hwang and students, then reused to warm the home and heat water. The rainwater gathered by the roof and downspouts is collected, filtered and reused in the house and garden.
- Gardens and food production are a big part of reACT. Outside, reACT utilizes a “three-sisters crop program” that indigenous tribes have been using for centuries, where the plants support each other as they grow reducing the need for watering and weeding, while providing habitat and creating food webs. Inside is an autonomous hydroponic garden, designed by Associate Professor of Architecture Dr. Hooman Koliji, for growing lettuce and herbs year-round.
- A solar attic that uses the energy captured from the sun to heat water, dry clothes, and even cook food. These specialized appliances are accessed through a Versalift elevator.
The Solar Decathlon is a biennial competition that challenges collegiate teams from around the world to design and build an energy-efficient, solar-powered house that is both affordable and attractive. The competition, which harnesses the collective knowledge of some of the brightest young minds in architecture, engineering, life sciences and technology, attracts thousands of visitors, including industry professionals, homeowners and designers from around the world. The two-year process—which spans from concept drawings to the construction of a physical house—culminates in a 10-contest competition lasting one week. This is the first year that teams are eligible for cash prizes; the first-place team will bring home $300,000.
The state’s only Solar Decathlon entry, and one of a mere 11 world-wide, reACT is the University’s fifth entry in the history of the Solar Decathlon competition. UMD took first place in 2011’s competition with WaterShed, which harnessed the power of both sun and water. In 2007, UMD placed 2nd overall with its entry, LEAFHouse.
The principles of reACT’s living systems model—specifically, harnessing the surrounding environment and managing waste differently—are still new concepts to American building, yet have been part of the Native American culture for centuries. These principles inspired reACT’s design as well as its audience; Native Americans living in urban environments often struggle to practice their culture in a setting that’s not as closely tied to nature. reACT intends to bring that flexibility to uphold traditions held in a tribal setting to the forefront. With counsel from the Eastern Shore’s Nanticoke tribe, the team used these long-standing traditions and practice as reACT’s foundation, aligning with today’s need for environmentally-sensitive, economically-viable housing. While their prototype case study for reACT revolves around a Nanticoke couple living in an urban setting, the modular concept and self-sustaining function of reACT lends itself to a variety of environments and cultures.
“This solution is incredibly flexible and very responsive to different lifestyles no matter who you are,” said student public information officer Emma Schrantz, a graduate student in UMD’s architecture program.
Now reunited with the house in Denver, the team will have eight days to re-assemble the reACT. As past teams are well aware, the devil is often in the details, with judges looking not just at form and function, but also attractive design, market potential and comfort. Native plantings curated by life sciences and modular furniture designed by Professor Garth Rockcastle and his students will bring their concept to life.
“We could never have gotten this far without the many hands pitching in from across campus and the wonderful sponsors who have stepped up to support us in this journey,” said engineering student and student project manager W. Paige Andros. “We were so lucky to have the guidance from mentors at Whiting Turner, AIA Potomac Valley, UMD’s Office of Sustainability, Constellation Energy and more. They helped make this dream a reality.”