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U.Va. Awarded Nearly $2.5 Million to Create Partnership for Design and Manufacture of Affordable, Energy-Efficient Housing

July 12, 2011 — The University of Virginia received a $2,445,000 grant from the Virginia Tobacco Commission Indemnification & Community Revitalization Commission to help transform industry in Southside Virginia utilizing housing designs created through the University's School of Architecture.
   
U.Va. is the lead partner on the one-year grant to design and manufacture affordable and energy-efficient housing systems and disaster recovery structures, the results of design and research by faculty and students in the award-winning ecoMOD and Initiative reCOVER programs.

Grant partners in Southside and Southwest Virginia include SIPS of America Inc. in Blairs; Cardinal Homes Inc. in Wylliesburg; the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center; the Halifax Industrial Development Authority/Riverstone Energy Center in South Boston; the Town of South Boston; Southside Outreach in South Boston; and People Inc. in Abingdon.

"This partnership between U.Va. and industry in Southside Virginia to develop a strong industrial base for affordable, energy-efficient housing systems is particularly significant, because it demonstrates a proactive role of U.Va. in delivering innovation for the good of people in the commonwealth and beyond," Thomas C. Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research, said. "It also shows that our U.Va. research – in this case in architecture and related fields – is globally competitive and can deliver high impact to the world."

The grant will fund research, development, testing and demonstration of housing for disaster recovery and residential housing markets – encompassing design and computer-aided manufacturing – and may lead to a robust modular and panelized housing systems industry in Southside Virginia, said Phillip A. Parrish, U.Va. associate vice president for research.

Parrish, the principal investigator, developed the grant proposal and shepherded it through the Tobacco Commission's review process. The commission's mission is to promote economic growth and development in formerly tobacco-dependent communities, using proceeds of the national tobacco settlement.

"The University is very interested in assisting with economic development in economically distressed areas of Virginia," Parrish said.

Anticipated to create more than 50 jobs, the grant also will provide technology and equipment upgrades to create state-of-the-art modular home manufacturing facilities.

"Affordable" addresses both the manufacturing savings of modular construction over traditional methods and a substantial reduction in energy usage by occupants. The goals of the project are to reduce cost of manufacturing by 20 percent and use of energy by 50 percent.

Three Initiative reCOVER disaster-relief prototype houses – the "Breathe House" for Haiti, which is expected to be in place this fall, and two multi-family ecoMOD houses, one in South Boston and the second in Abingdon – will provide research opportunities for modular construction processes and evaluation of the energy efficiency of the occupied structures.

"The Tobacco Commission grant is a spectacular triple win," Architecture School Dean Kim Tanzer said. "Families in need, locally and around the world, will receive well-designed affordable homes; Southside Virginia will have a chance to revitalize its manufacturing base; and professors John Quale and Anselmo Canfora and their students will have an opportunity to engage in ongoing research about energy efficiency, production processes and other issues vital to success in the manufactured housing arena."

She added, "We are all proud of John, Anselmo and their collaborators in receiving this important support."

Quale is founder and director of the ecoMOD program, a collaborative effort with the School of Engineering and Applied Science to design, build and evaluate affordable sustainable modular housing.  Quale also runs ecoREMOD, a parallel project focused on rehabilitating existing homes.

"This is the culmination of what the ecoMOD Project has been trying to do for almost 10 years," he said. "It is a real opportunity to prove what we have been doing is viable in the broader marketplace. A year from now, four more families will have affordable and highly energy-efficient townhomes, and our manufacturing partners will be ready to deliver more."
 
To date, Quale, engineering professor Paxton Marshall, landscape architecture professor Nancy Takahashi and interdisciplinary teams of students have built or renovated nine ecoMOD or ecoREMOD housing units on six sites. Seven units are in Charlottesville, one was built on the Mississippi Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina and one was recently completed in Falmouth, Jamaica.

With this partnership, "We will be able to demonstrate that our designs can be translated to the modular housing industry. We want to create the best possible building envelope for the money and more importantly, reduce utility bills for the occupants," he said. "This is fantastic for affordable housing. There are examples of high-performance affordable housing, and high-performance modular housing, but we are aiming to combine them for our affordable housing partners in Southside and Southwest Virginia."

Quale said he and his manufacturing partners hope to see real savings in the manufacturing process. "Cardinal Homes has already made an investment in cost-reduction in manufacturing and sustainability, and has sophistication in this area," he said.

The plan is to translate the ecoMOD designs into Cardinal Homes' system of standardized modular components." We will collaborate with Cardinal Homes and SIPS of America to blend our ideas with their optimized construction methods," he said.

Quale will work with a small team of student research assistants on the project. He plans to hire a recent Architecture School graduate who has some professional experience to adapt the ecoMOD drawings for a manufacturing scenario. Other team members will focus their research on materials and energy performance.

The grant also will facilitate exploration of three Initiative reCOVER prototypical pre-fabricated structures that will be assembled on site. Designed as safe, healthy and resilient transitional housing for disaster recovery, the goal is to determine the specifications for manufacture, including materials and procedures and details for packing and shipping, said Canfora, Initiative reCOVER director.

"In the broader picture, we are looking to see how we can establish comprehensive processes to better prepare for disaster events in the future," he said.

One of the prototypes is the "Breathe House," which will be assembled in Bois L'Etat, Haiti, a community outside the coastal town of St. Marc, northwest of Port-au-Prince. Groundbreaking for the house took place in late June and the house is expected to be complete by the end of 2011.

On the manufacturing end, "new equipment and modern technologies are being introduced to support the fabrication of new prototypes," Canfora said. "The project is a catalyst for modernizing the modular housing plants in Southside and creating new jobs with additional manufacturing skill sets."

Computer-aided digital fabrication is "one of the exciting aspects of the project," he said. Digital design and computer-aided fabrication plays a pivotal role in Canfora's teaching and research, and will be translated to industrial partners SIPS of America and Cardinal Homes, both located in Southside Virginia.

The prototypes will allow assessment of structural viability and address packing and shipping. "It's a multi-dimensional puzzle to figure out how everything goes in sequentially, guarantees the safety of the components during shipping and assures ease of assembly on site," he said.

A team of architecture students and recent graduates, including Aja Bulla-Richards, in tandem with recent graduate Sara Harper, will work with the manufacturers and develop construction documents and performance specifications for the "Breathe House."

Canfora and Quale will lead seminars for undergraduates and graduates that will focus on research and development of Initiative reCOVER and ecoMOD for the work funded by the grant.

"To be able to contribute to the school founded by Thomas Jefferson is a dream of a lifetime," Jimmy Farlow, president of SIPS of America Inc, said. "As it grows, our partnership is improving the engineering that President Jefferson spent his life learning and improving. We are giving back to the University of Virginia the ability to teach advanced building techniques with new ecologically innovative materials engineered by Virginians. This is the greatest honor of my life."

Workforce training partners (Southern Virginia Higher Education Center and the Riverstone Energy Center in Southside Virginia) will participate in the development of automated manufacturing methods and advanced protective coatings technologies for the housing systems.

The grant award is for one year with options for follow-up proposals for two additional years.

– by Jane Ford

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