ECO-STRUCTURE recently caught up with Jordan Smith, architectural project manager for Unit 6 Unplugged, a joint entry from Old Dominion University and Hampton University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon.

How is your solar paneling unique?

The most unique feature about our solar panel array is the way it’s integrated into the roofs form. Twelve panels and one flat-plate thermal collector are centrally located on the sloped roof, which has a built-up perimeter that’s the same height as the panel array. This makes the panel array and finished roof have a flush continuous surface. The array appears recessed into the form of the roof.

What other sustainable features have you incorporated into your design?

The house was designed to benefit from primarily passive strategies. Natural lighting, solar heat gain and cross ventilation are all major drivers of our sustainable approach. One of the more unique passive strategies we used was in our porch/sun-room. The floor of this room is used in the colder months as a thermal mass to emit heat throughout the house. The floor consists of a dark porcelain tile, set on a 5/8" layer of cement board. Beneath the cement board is a 1" fiberglass grid into which a bio phase change material was placed. Typically, this type of phase-change material (PCM) is used in the wall, but by using the fiberglass grate to reinforce the phase change material we were able to adapt it for a floor application. The PCM melts as it absorbs heat at a temperature of 73° Fahrenheit or higher. Once the temperature drops below 73° the PCM begins to solidify and release its stored heat energy. It basically works as a more efficient thermal mass because it has less lag time for the heat release.

What was the inspiration of your design, and does it display any regional influences?

The precedent for the house was an existing six-unit multifamily building that we titled the “6 Pack”—hence the name of the competition house: “The Unit 6.” These 6 Packs are abundant in the Tidewater area, and all of them have a porch or balcony. The porch was a huge player in the design of our house. It helps to engage and socially activate the neighborhood while functioning as a passive heating and cooling system for the house. We were also inspired by area Arts and Crafts–style homes. Features like the wood joinery on the pergola and exterior pilasters pay tribute to that style. On the interior, a picture rail, window and door trim, built-in shelving, and columns continue this language throughout the house. We wanted our house to be something new yet feel familiar to local residents and the neighborhood.

How has the new affordability criteria affected the design of your house?

The new affordability category was a real hurdle for us. Initially our goal was to make the house affordable before we even knew it was part of the competition. That’s where the 6 Pack building came into play. By densifying the structure and sharing solar resources for multiple units under one roof, the cost was dramatically reduced and it became a much more sustainable approach to living. Another tactic that we adapted for the competition was exclusively using off-the-shelf products that were affordable, efficient, and readily available.

What will happen to the house after the Solar Decathlon?

The house will be located on Old Dominions Campus as a design studio to continue the collaboration between the university’s engineering students and architecture students from Hampton University. We believe that a house designed together by students of both disciplines produces better results and is a great experience and preparation for graduating students.