September 2, 2009 — After a busy summer of construction in the old hangar at the University of Virginia-owned Milton Airfield, the four modules of ecoMOD4 – a first floor with kitchen and living area, a second floor with two bedrooms and a bathroom, and first- and second-floor stairwell-storage-powder room modules that tie the two stories together – will be hauled by tractor-trailer later this month, lifted by crane onto the prepared foundation, and assembled on its permanent Elliott Avenue site.
It's an exacting construction process.
"The stair module needs to line up to within a 16th of an inch of the front," said Edric Barnes, a mechanical engineering student in U.Va.'s School of Engineering and Applied Science, who served as an engineering manager on ecoMOD4 this summer.
Developed in partnership with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville, ecoMOD4 features a larger photovoltaic array than ecoMOD2 and a geothermal heat pump. According to Marshall, the combined technologies may be capable of providing all the energy needed for heating and cooling.
According to electrical and computer engineering professor Paxton Marshall, who was recruited as ecoMOD's engineering director by architecture professor and ecoMOD project director John Quale, geothermal heat pumps "work more efficiently" than traditional heat pumps because they exchange heat with the earth through a ground heat exchanger rather than with outside air. Unlike air temperatures, which vary dramatically from winter to summer depending on the home's latitude, ground temperatures at a certain depth "stay a constant 55 to 60 degrees" no matter what the latitude, Marshall said.
ecoMOD4 will also benefit from a "rain garden," he said. Such gardens, strategically planted at a site's lowest point, receive water that runs off from impermeable surfaces such as roofs and sidewalks, giving the water a chance to penetrate the ground rather than erode the property or carry pollutants into streams.
As with all ecoMOD constructions, the technical systems of ecoMOD4 will be rigorously monitored and evaluated for at least a year. If necessary, modifications will be made.
Such diligent follow-up is one of the many attractive features of owning an ecoMOD home, according to Kiersten Kaufman and Cory Teitelbaum, who bought ecoMOD1 in Charlottesville's Fifeville neighborhood in March 2007.
"Within the first couple of months, Paxton was able to tell us the cost of every load of laundry we do," Kaufman said. "We have every outlet monitored, so we can directly see how our energy is used. It makes it exciting to conserve."
Meanwhile, U.Va. is partnering with the city of Charlottesville on a project called ecoREMOD. Starting this fall, a vacant, derelict 1920s-era, city-owned home located at the corner of Elliott Avenue and Ridge Street, next door to ecoMOD4,will be remodeled with sustainable energy efficiencies using designs generated by ecoMOD students and faculty.
The partnership is through the new public-private Local Energy Alliance Program, or LEAP.
"If we really want to get serious about reducing energy consumption in this country, then finding inexpensive ways to improve energy efficiencies in older homes is key," Marshall said.
Following its completion in 2010, ecoREMOD will be open to the public for two years as a demonstration project. The building will include office space for a project – not yet identified – that will, like ecoREMOD, be funded in part by a $500,000 award that LEAP received in July from the Southeast Energy Efficiency Alliance. The alliance supports renovation projects that are "designed to achieve unprecedented energy and water savings by retrofitting buildings and installing renewable technologies."
Two engineering and two architecture students from U.Va. are now working on preliminary plans for the remodel. They are receiving guidance from Marshall, Quale and city officials.
"While we have a general plan of what we would like to happen, we're still trying to narrow down what technologies we will use," said Barnes, one of the student planners. "We want to get as energy efficient as possible."
The challenge is cost. "We could easily spend $500,000 on remodeling, but that's not the purpose of ecoREMOD," Barnes said. The goal is to find energy solutions that low- and fixed-income homeowners can afford.
With so much innovation taking place, it's not surprising that ecoMOD continues to garner awards. In 2008, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance awarded $15,000, which is being used to develop a home-energy monitoring system. Earlier this year, the ecoMOD project placed second in the National Idea-to-Product Competition for Social Entrepreneurship for its energy monitoring work.
This spring, four ecoMOD projects received Jefferson Public Citizen awards, which were established by the Board of Visitors to support student projects that connect public service and scholarship. The grants averaged about $15,000 each.
"We don't want to do the same thing every year," Marshall said. "We have already built several single-family houses. What we want to do next is look at multi-family housing, especially for areas like Charlottesville where land is so expensive."
To that end, ecoMOD is now talking to Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville and affordable housing groups in Richmond and Southwest Virginia about future partnerships.
As for Barnes, while he still has two more years of undergraduate engineering education to complete, he finds that "hands-on" construction management really suits him. "This definitely has been the most informative, best learning experience of any of my classes," he said. "So far, the classes I've taken don't apply to construction management, but the problem-solving aspect of my engineering classes has helped a lot. Working on ecoMOD makes me feel like I'm helping out in some sense, making a difference.
"In retrospect, it surprises me how much influence we students have over what happens," he added. "The teachers guide us, but we have to get it done. The phone calls to potential contractors, the considerations about price – these real-world experiences are definitely helpful. It gets me excited about the work I have to do."