ecoMOD4 House in Charlottesville Dedicated; ecoREMOD is Kicked Off

December 14, 2009

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:

December 14, 2009 — A crowd of more than 100 well-wishers braved the cold Saturday afternoon for a ribbon-cutting marking the fourth ecoMOD4 project. The house, located at 104 Elliott Ave., is a collaboration between the ecoMOD project at the University of Virginia, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville and the City of Charlottesville.

The goal of ecoMOD is to design, build and evaluate affordable, prefabricated homes based upon sustainable design principles.

"What we are trying to do is create sustainable prefab housing prototypes for the sector of the economy that most needs it, and that's those who qualify for affordable housing," said John Quale, an assistant professor of architecture who directs the ecoMOD project.

Simple, decent and affordable housing really means sustainable housing, said Dan Rosensweig, executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Charlottesville. "Sustainable should be attainable by all and not just by those who can afford to build an energy-efficient home as some sort of luxury item," he said.

In the ecoMOD collaboration between U.Va's schools of Architecture and Engineering, students take leadership roles in designing all aspects of the project and see it through to completion.

One goal the students embraced with this project was to create a home with net zero energy consumption, which would mean no utility bills for the homeowners, said Cory Caldwell, a May graduate of the College of Arts & Sciences in philosophy, who joined an engineering class and worked on various aspects of the project, including fundraising and construction.

"We've come pretty close," he said. "We're running off a geothermal system and photovoltaic panels on the roof, so we have sustainable, alternative sources of power – apart from the main grid. The house is incredibly energy-efficient."

A monitoring system will evaluate energy consumption. "Rather than just having computer simulations to tell you how the house should be performing, we'll be getting real-world feedback about what's actually happening," Caldwell said.

The team is aiming for a "platinum" rating from Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – or LEED – an arbiter of green building practices.

"What is critical in sustainability is creating feedback loops," Architecture School Dean Kim Tanzer said. "You have to be able to evaluate what you are doing to improve it consistently.

"This is the only program in the country or to my knowledge in the world that is not just a design-build project, but design-build-evaluate, which allows them to get better with each iteration of the project. That's a fabulous example that's an international model of best practices."

James Aylor, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, praised the "comprehensive nature of the University and the ability to be involved in interdisciplinary projects. The fact that Engineering is working with Architecture adds a significant value to students from both sides of the fence."

Speaking to the collaborative spirit of the project, May architecture graduate James Perakis, one of the ecoMOD project managers, said, "EcoMod is really unique at U.Va. It takes the students out of the classroom. I've had the chance to work with local businesspeople, city officials and others. I've had the opportunity to learn from all of them. And that I think is the real spirit of collaboration."

Engineering professor Paxton Marshall has directed the engineering component of the project since the beginning of the ecoMOD project in 2004. He said the experience has changed his whole approach to education. "Students need to know not only about things, but need to know how to get things done," he said.

Dr. Arthur Garson Jr., U.Va. executive vice president and provost, commended the link between academics and community outreach. "It's not just about what do we do in class, but what do we do for real? What do we do for people, how do we serve people?

"This is a model that can be replicated all over the state, all over the country, all over the world for the benefit of those who really need it most."

Work must still be completed before homeowners Nasima and Fazel Andesha can occupy their new home. They have worked side-by-side with the students and Habitat volunteers during the construction process. Nasima said the experience made everyone "feel like family."

Following the dedication, the crowd toured the house and regrouped at 608 Ridge St., a home next door dating from the mid-1920s, for the kick-off of ecoREMOD, a sustainable historic preservation demonstration project.

Charlottesville Mayor David Norris said there are many houses of a similar age, condition and style in Charlottesville that could be renovated and retrofitted to be energy-efficient. The house will be a model for the goals of the Charlottesville and Albemarle County LEAP – or Local Energy Alliance Program – and reflects the city's commitment to clean energy and energy conservation. After the renovation, LEAP will move its offices to the house, which will be open to the public. After three years, it will become home to two families.

Quale said the project "extends ecoMOD into renovation and to a publicly accessible demonstration of sustainable principles. There's nothing more sustainable than working with a building that already exists."

Architectural history students will collaborate on the project. Department chairman Louis Nelson said buildings like this "are material memories that are the texture of our landscape. This is a remarkable opportunity to help return this house to active use."

— By Jane Ford