Weathering the Storm: SURE HOUSE

There was a time when the name most closely associated with the Jersey shore was “Snooki.” Today, it is Sandy, the Superstorm that transformed this stretch of Atlantic coast from laid-back vacation destination to an all-too-real manifestation of the dangers of climate change. Over 340,000 damaged homes and 2.6 million residents left without power forced the question: how can coastal communities prepare for supercharged weather and mitigate climate impacts?

One response was the SURE HOUSE. Designed and built by the students and faculty of the Stevens Institute of Technology, the home combines sustainability and resiliency SU+RE) as a prototype for flood-proof, energy-efficient housing. At SURE HOUSE: A Model of Resiliency, the student team discussed the project and how they integrated elements from a range of  disciplines

The SURE House, a resilient and sustainable home design

The SURE HOUSE is the Stevens Institute’s third entry into the U.S. Solar Decathlon, the Department of Energy’s design competition, with previous Stevens entries coming in at 13th and fourth place.. Reflecting Sandy’s impact on the region, coastal resiliency was a key component of their 2015 submission to the Decathlon. The combination of reduced energy consumption, on-site power generation through unique solar technology, and storm resistance concepts adopted from the marine industry clinched the top spot for Stevens this year.

It is certainly a technological achievement, but first and foremost the SURE HOUSE is a home. Construction manager Israel Fuentes (Parsons School of Design) walked us through the design’s “compact but cozy” 500 sf interior and two-bedroom, one-bath configuration. The Decathlon’s parameters allow for twice that square footage, so the team included exterior decks that make the house feel larger.

On the southern exposure, sunlight reflected off the deck and wood veneer ceiling illuminate the living and dining space. While natural light is welcomed into the space, the design also shields the interior from heat gain in the summer with an external overhang. Conversely, the low angle of the winter sun allows this solar heat gain to act as the home’s primary heating source in colder months.

The Stevens Institute team behind the SURE HOUSE

Along with using and controlling the sun, electrical engineer and CM Chris Hamm (The Stevens Institute) explained how the team employed Passive House fundamentals to ensure minimal heating and cooling demand, including superior insulation, minimal thermal bridging, airtight construction, and energy recovery ventilators. This means the SURE HOUSE requires a mere 10% of the energy used in a typical New Jersey home.

Fabrication specialist Tom King (The Stevens Institute) put New Jersey’s experience in a broader context by pointing out that 123 million Americans lived in counties adjacent to shorelines in 2010. The practical implication for anyone living and building closest to the water, in the National Flood Insurance Program’s Zone A, is a requirement that new construction be designed above flood level. Rather than go seven feet in the air, the SURE HOUSE explores dry flood proofing, which requires keeping the structure dry for 72 hours (presuming surge flooding and no wave action flooding; King notes that this is currently only legal for commercial structures). To achieve this, several techniques were adopted from the marine industry, including a composite envelope of glass fibers and a structural foam core that can endure water and wind forces. Water-sealed storm shutters were inspired by gasketed hatches in boats, and block-and-tackle pulley systems help keep those shutters in place. 

The Stevens Institute team behind the SURE HOUSE

Electrical engineer AJ Elliot (The Stevens Institute) pointed out the other major marine-based aspect of the design: the solar photovoltaic system. Typical solar hot water systems use a tube or flat-plate design—but the Stevens team needed a system that wouldn’t be vulnerable to flying debris, so the panels are actually integrated into the storm shutters. Rather than use an inverter to supply AC power, a hybrid heat pump/hot water tank accepts DC power straight from the PV system and allows it to function independently from the grid. Marine-grade USB outlets on the exterior are designed to allow neighbors to charge their phones in case of a blackout.

The SURE HOUSE is currently still in pieces in California, but the team hopes to have the house rebuilt and ready for tours back on the East coast later this year.

About the author

Matthew Shurtleff
Matthew Shurtleff is a guest writer for Urban Green and was a member of our Monthly Programs Committee.