In my tour of the 2017 Solar Decathlon in Denver, Team Maryland was my favorite. Their project called reACT (i.e. Resilient Adaptive Climate Technology) proved to me that a sustainable future needs to merge indigenous/cultural traditions along with modern technology. This is not just about energy either. Even though the architecture and engineering were exceptional in this design, the incorporation of cultural traditions gave the house much more impact than the rest of the entries at the Solar Decathlon.
When I toured the reACT house I spoke with some of the team and learned about a Native American philosophy called the "7th Generation Principle". This principle simply says that we should think about our future descendants 7 generations from now (about 140 years) and honor them by leaving the world better.
Through this paradigm, I learned some new things about design, prefabrication, and a host of other takeaways in the realm of sustainable architecture.
A Young Couple in Denver
One of the reACT team members, Angela Stoltz, Student Leader for Client Relations, explained that the home was created for a young Nanticoke Indian couple living in Denver. The Nanticoke people, an eastern-shore Maryland Tribe, are deeply tied to nature and revere Mother Earth.
Now that the reACT house prototype has been completed there has been some discussion with the tribe to manufacture the house for their people. They are also interested in redesigning the house for a community center to be built on their own lands.
Team Maryland is also working with two Ojibwe tribes, one in Canada and one in Minnesota. The team has been working with a community college on the reservation and with the tribal council to help the tribe develop their own technology. Team Maryland would assist in training their faculty and students in the technology used for the house, and also help them setup manufacturing at nearby warehouse facilities on the reservation.
Putting the manufacturing in the hands of tribes would help employ tribal members and allow them to create their own high-quality housing. Typical indigenous housing found on government reservation lands is often of poor quality and not tailored to the local environment or building site. This is why the adaptability of the reACT house makes a lot of sense for native housing.
A primary reason that the home is designed around a living, green space is to support food security. According to the USDA, most Native American reservations are in food deserts, so being able to grow your own food supports sovereignty - just like living off the grid.
There is a movement for native housing to be improved not only for livability and viability but also for sustainability. The team believes that that success in this movement must incorporate indigenous knowledge systems into the house by thinking about how our technologies today can complement those core cultural values.
For example, the water captured on the rooftop and its reuse in the house allows occupants to appreciate how every drop of water is sacred and helps them not to waste it. Also, captured heat can be used as a natural element for many things in daily life, similar to times when the fire was at the center of the home. The house is all about optimization of resources, and that is what the indigenous knowledge systems are all about. It is about looking at the available resources and learning how to optimize now while thinking about the generations beyond.
A Way of Life to Call Home
Tribal peoples have traditionally been adaptable to move locations and it is important to have food security. They also have an inter-generational family model of living - much more so than the rest of the United States. This house celebrates that. The design of the house's wings are designed to be modular and flexible for future additions. The idea is that the home can expand to meet the needs of a growing family.
The base unit on display has one bedroom and a convertible office. The office can be used for children or an aging parent. Adding more rooms to either side of the home is a simple function of extending the length of that section. The interior birch plywood does an excellent job of balancing light reflectivity and warmth to the interior space.
Architecture and Innovation
First of all the house is about creating a regenerative system and a living machine. It's about giving back to the environment, and instead of only thinking about doing “less bad” the team wanted to make a net-positive impact by improving our human habitats.
Create Less Waste
The team is interested in creating less waste and do that in a variety of ways. First, they catch rainwater and store it directly under the greenhouse to save piping. They also filter the house's greywater from the sink, laundry machine and shower, before delivering it to the plants around the home through an automated drip-irrigation system. The greywater storage is located directly beneath the core, where all the appliances are, so that there is less piping required.
The Attic as a Solar Oven
They also reuse waste heat by capitalizing on the natural convection currents from heat rising in the greenhouse and pulling it into the attic space above the house. The captured excess heat in attic is used to preheat the incoming water pipes before it is delivered to the hot water tanks. This warm attic air is also sent into the house at night, when it is cold. This balances the day/night termperture swing.
The attic is also home to some innovative solar dryers. Even more heat is brought into the attic with two strategically placed skylights. These skylights are coordinated with drying racks that retract up into the ceiling. Occupants use these racks to passively dry fruits and vegetables, and even laundry.
Interior Spine Wall
The heart of the home is the spine-wall. This combines the bathroom, laundry, and kitchen back-to-back along this central utility wall. They used a ed acrylic plastic as a durable cover to highlight this wall as the center of the house.
The acrylic panels snap directly to the SIP (structurally insulated panel) walls used for the core in the same manner that the birch plywood attaches to the home's other walls and ceiling. This spine wall design lowers wiring and piping distances which saves money. It centralizes the complexity of the home to what they call the "core". The core section can be produced on an assembly line with a high degree of control, and each core can be fine-tuned with the house's climate zone in mind.
The team is currently working with a native American tribe to produce 300 versions of this home based on the same central core utility wall. The wings of the home are where there is flexibility, but the common spine wall is what allows so many options. Homes could even be stacked for multi-floor applications.
The living wall is another component of the home. There are outdoor growing racks that can be moved into the greenhouse to extend the growing season of certain species. The greenhouse has operable walls and an automated roof vent that can help optimize the temperature and humidity. This kind of control allows more variety in the kinds of species that can be grown.
There is also a growing system on the interior of the large windows that face into the greenhouse. They pot racks have integrated hydroponic drip-irrigation that makes growing more automated.
The home allows reuse of nutrients by creating compost from food scraps. A composting toilet is also used in the home.
Resilient Modular Wall for Future Remodels
Another innovative idea is the notion of disentanglement. The team's design has separated the different layers of their walls based on the different lifespans of each material. The inner bones of the walls are composed of SIP (structural insulated panels). SIP walls offer continuous insulation and are extremely resilient as a component.
The interior finish of the home's walls and ceilings is an adaptable system. It is covered with demountable plywood panels that utilize a ubiquitous panel snap embedded directly into the interior of the SIP wall. Novel thinking! You can simply pop these panels off to reconfigure wiring and plumbing as needed.
This idea of future-proofing and a "kit of parts" saves a drywall mess during changes, repairs or reconfiguration. The plus is that you are not destroying something that lasts 80 years to fix something that lasts 10 years. Keeping the SIP walls untouched as a base element during future remodeling keeps the home's performance at a constant.
Virtual House Research & Design
Alan Uy, Automation/SmartHouse Leader shared, "We wanted to see how our home would perform in any part of the United States. We are gathering data from weather forecasts in different climate zones across the country. We then rank how the house is performing in different metrics, such as power, heat, water, etc. Through tracking and modeling, we can then assess if the home will reach the goal of net-positive in each location. We have some more work to do when we get the house back to Maryland, and the end goal is to make the virtual software open source."
New Old-Fashioned Thinking
In a way, all the entries at the Solar Decathlon educated us all on the relationship between common sense and user behavior and the use of high-technology to automate energy generation and expedite human comfort. I like to think of this strategy as the best new, old-fashioned thinking. But, taking things to another level, Team Maryland promoted the solidarity of our native people and their way of life. Kudos to them!