U.Va.’s ecoMOD South – Affordable, Sustainable Modular Housing – Earns Prestigious Architect Magazine Award

ecoMOD South, a grant-funded initiative of the University of Virginia’s ecoMOD project, has won Architect Magazine’s 2013 Research and Development Award, announced in the magazine’s July issue.

The ecoMOD project is a joint initiative of U.Va.’s schools of Architecture and Engineering and Applied Science.

Considered the most important research-and-development award in architecture, the judges for this year’s award included noted architects Lawrence Scarpa, a leader in sustainable design; Jing Liu, co-founder of the SO-IL architecture firm in New York City; and internationally known fabricator Bill Zahner, the president and CEO of Zahner, an architectural metal company in Kansas City, Mo.

“Affordable” and “sustainable” were two concepts that caught the attention of the jury when it reviewed ecoMOD’s high-performance, modular housing designs, according to Zahner.

Over the past decade, the ecoMod project has pooled the research and development efforts of more than 370 students from the University’s architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, planning, business and historic preservation programs.

Led by John Quale, associate professor of architecture, and Paxton Marshall, a recently retired professor of electrical engineering, the ecoMOD project has created a series of environmentally responsible and highly efficient housing units for affordable housing organizations.

Founded in 2004, the project is engaged in two types of design efforts: ecoMOD projects (prefab modular housing) and ecoREMOD projects (renovated homes).

Sustainable residential design has long been a luxury reserved for the wealthy,” Quale said. “Unfortunately, the sustainable homes that grace the pages of design magazines are beyond the reach of most Americans. Our goal since the beginning has been to create low-cost and low-impact homes for affordable housing organizations, who serve the segment of the population that can benefit most from the reduced energy, water and maintenance costs associated with environmentally responsive homes.”

In 2011, the ecoMOD project received $1.2 million from the Virginia Tobacco Commission Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission to commercialize an adaptation of the ecoMOD4 home, designed in 2009 by a student team for Habitat for Humanity.

The grant was structured to transform that design into a four-bedroom home that aspires to be the first truly affordable, standard modular home built to “Passive House” standards in the United States. Achieving Passive House standard requires rigorous simulations and analysis to reach a very low energy-consumption target for heating and cooling. To reach this target, it is necessary to have substantially more insulation than a conventional building, as well as high-performance windows.

As a result, over the last two years a design team comprised of faculty and research assistants from architecture, landscape architecture and engineering – dubbed “ecoMOD South” – embarked on an intensive collaborative process with a modular homebuilder, Cardinal Homes of Wylliesburg, and two nonprofit affordable housing organizations, Southside Outreach of South Boston and People Inc. of Abingdon. The result is a commercially available version of the home.

Cardinal Homes completed construction on three houses in June. Two Passive House-standard homes were built, one in South Boston and one in Abingdon. A third “control” house was built to meet the standard building code and placed next to the home in South Boston for purposes of comparison.

Beginning this fall, all three homes will be occupied. The energy use and indoor comfort of the homes will be monitored to allow the research team to assess performance of the homes.

The Passive House homes were built for $105 per square foot (the cost includes everything above the foundation), and the ‘control’ home was built for $70 per square foot. Both figures are within the range for affordable housing in most areas of the country, and significantly below a custom site-built home built to the same quality and performance specifications.

The most recent tests and inspections indicate the ecoMOD homes remain on track for Passive House certification, although final certification is pending due to a necessary adjustment to the mechanical systems.

In addition to Quale and Marshall, the research team for ecoMod South included project manager Michael Britt, Elizabeth Rivard, Erik de los Reyes and Beth Bailey. Nancy Takahashi, a distinguished lecturer in landscape architecture, and Eric Field, insight lab director, advised the team. The Passive House consultant was Barbara Gehrung. A U.Va. Jefferson Public Citizens team of undergraduate engineering students designed and installed the monitoring systems.

Media Contact

Robert Hull

Office of University Communications