By Avi Salem | CED Communications
Students from the University of Denver and UC Berkeley—including a cohort of architecture students from the College of Environmental Design—were part of a collaborative team that recently placed third in the 2017 Solar Decathlon, a collegiate competition that challenges students to design and build full-size, solar-powered houses.
The entirely student-run UC Berkeley team—which included over 40 undergraduate and graduate members in disciplines including civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, architecture, environmental design, marketing, legal studies, economics, real estate, business, and more—worked in collaboration with a group of students from the University of Denver to create the RISE Home, a sustainable, net-zero house designed specifically for the densely populated areas of Richmond, California. Sponsored by the US Department of Energy, this year’s Solar Decathlon was the first time a team from UC Berkeley had ever competed in the contest.
Created to align with both UC Berkeley’s and the University of Denver’s commitments to public service and innovative social impact, the RISE Home aimed to combat the overcrowding and environmental challenges facing many Bay Area residents. The team’s ultimate goal was to build a modular, reproducible solution that would leave a lasting and sustainable impact on densely populated areas.
RISE—which stands for Residential, Inviting, Stacking and Efficient—had a design approach that emerged from an emphasis on practical, logical thought in design instead of elaborate technological systems, according to the group’s website. RISE was created to allow for multiplication and integration into larger combinations of units that could fit into long, narrow infill lots in the urbanizing area of Richmond.
Architecture students Aboubacar Komara (BA Arch ‘18) and Matt Turlock (M.Arch ‘19) both joined the Solar Decathlon club last fall to help provide design expertise to a group of then largely engineers. Komara created renderings for the interior design, specifically the moveable walls, while Turlock designed the outer facade.
“The house is somewhat of a box, so the challenge was to make its exterior architecturally interesting,” Turlock explained. “We wanted something that was visually appealing but also could be quickly assembled, so we came up with a parametric wave system along the facade that was made up of cables and beams—all straight pieces that could be assembled easily by threading them together. We were able to assemble the facade in three days.”
In addition, the entire structural system was designed to represent the bottom unit of a stacked configuration with a lateral force resisting system that could withstand wind and seismic forces up to three stories high. This meant that the competition unit RISE built could be stacked and placed in an infill lot with no structural modifications.The moveable wall system designed by Komara also allowed for space within the home to adapt from multiple bedroom layouts to a fully open floor plan with ease. Completely independent from the structure, the inner bedroom walls were on a track system that could collapse and open 75 percent of the home’s layout for communal entertainment space.
“It felt a little scary at first, because when we were moving our design from Richmond to Denver and joining with another team, we weren’t sure how much authorship they would want or if they would even like our design,” Turlock said. “But the group from the University of Denver was very much on board from the start.”
Formed halfway through the Spring 2017 semester, UC Berkeley’s partnership with the University of Denver was a convenient one: since the Decathlon itself was held in Denver, their team was able to implement many of the smaller, nuanced design changes that Komara and Turlock were remotely designing. Komara explained that as many details changed, such as the size of the moveable walls, the Denver team was able to provide feedback every step of the way.
“We had a lot of designs at first that we thought were the best, but due to construction and time restraints, had to be changed around,” he said. “The University of Denver team was able to solve a lot of our construction issues, which made things easier.”
For both Turlock and Komara, who saw their completed design for the first time during the competition’s final weekend, actually seeing their efforts come to life was an inspiring experience.
“When I got there, I couldn’t manage my emotions because looking at the model in Rhino all this time versus seeing it in real life was surreal,” Komara said. “As I was walking through the space, I felt like I was still in my computer—it was pretty cool.”
For Turlock, whose undergraduate degree is in structural engineering, the experience was similarly moving. “It was a powerful experience being involved this heavily in a design and seeing a vision realized so quickly, all in my first year as a Masters student.”
Both students felt that their involvement with the Solar Decathlon has informed their own design thinking and skill, especially the importance of detail and the early integration of architecture and engineering. While both Turlock and Komara will have graduated by the time the next Solar Decathlon takes place, they were both grateful for the opportunity to be involved in a competition that started with such humble beginnings at UC Berkeley.
“When we started I did not think it would come to actually building a structure,” Komara explained. “We didn’t measure the magnitude of how much influence we would have. From Matt working on the facade to me working on the renderings of the moveable walls, we made the design a reality by being able to visualize it to others—especially sponsors—who supported us.”