Disaster Relief Housing

During my coverage of the Solar Decathlon 2011 in Washington, D.C., I was fortunate to interview Michael Hines of the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). Michael served as an architect throughout the project, and he exhibited a relaxed maturity well beyond his years. While many publications focused intently on the sustainable technologies and systems that each team incorporated into their designs, I was more interested in discovering the ins and outs of the competition and how the team’s principles and values stood out in their work.

University of Illinois - Solar Decathlon 2011

University of Illinois – Solar Decathlon 2011

For Michael’s team, the design was centered around the concept of a rapidly deployed disaster relief house that could be supplied by insurance companies as part of premium pay outs.

We started early looking at natural disasters.  We were actually at the beginning of the conceptual stage for this project looking at Katrina or Haiti type disasters and building a solar house to fit their needs.  Then we revisited what the best strategy was to go forward in this competition and how those concepts marry together.  That’s when we started to see coincidental (though unfortunate) timing: we had a series of tornadoes that hit our rural communities.  A lot of these small communities don’t qualify for FEMA, so these people get left between the government and their insurance companies.  What we’re looking at are areas where people are getting displaced from their communities because there are not a lot of rental properties.  Families get split up due to work obligations, and their kids might have to go to different family members’ homes somewhere outside of the community. That means they’re moving from their schools, their churches and their support group.  That’s where we really saw an issue and we wanted to come up with a house that is prefabricated ahead of time and ready to be easily transported anywhere.  Once it got on site, it would require minimal skilled labor because in many rural communities they don’t have an extended labor base like the big cities.  That was really the inspiration for where we wanted to go with the house. I think we designed a prototype that goes in that direction, showing that fast response housing doesn’t have to be your typical FEMA trailer.  It can look and feel like a normal house.  It can function in a way that the from the moment people move into it, they don’t want to move out of it right away.  It’s something that they can feel comfortable in and they can really think about how they can move forward with their lives.
For many, disaster relief conjures an image of shipping containers with the bare necessities: a bed, a toilet, and a kitchen sink. The University of Illinois team decided to pursue an alternative to the typical FEMA response in aesthetic, size and implementation.
Well we looked early on at the FEMA trailer “temporary response”.  The reason I say that in quotation marks is because that is what it is meant to be, but it often doesn’t end up as a temporary response. What we tried to do was skip the idea that it’s going to be a temporary step and instead create a solution that is permanent housing for these families, or at the very least an extended stay. We’re not buying into the idea that it’s going to be a three month stay and people are going to leave, because it’s just doesn’t happen in reality. Also, when you start to think about disaster relief, we’re looking at a different definition. When people imagine disaster relief, they picture Haiti or Katrina, or maybe the tsunami in Japan; locations that are far away in areas with low income. But we focused on the people that are affected by [small scale] disasters here in the United States; places close by. We wanted to create something that could be rapidly deployed to them; something a little more locally focused.
Often times, a ‘rapid deployment’ strategy can take on different meanings. The University of Illinois team was able to set up their pre-fabricated structure in a matter of hours, holding true to their claim of rapid deployment.
The house is meant to be totally prefabricated in a modular home manufacturing environment. The idea was to have the units constructed before a disaster strikes, and the house would be waiting to be deployed. If that were the situation, the house could go up almost immediately. If the house is waiting on a truck or even in a modular fabrication facility, it would be extremely quick. The two units you see here are totally constructed, including the floor, walls, ceiling, interior finishes, all the cabinetry and appliances. All of the plumbing is done, all of the electrical is run, and all of the lights are installed. It’s everything. We even shipped them with the furniture inside. Both of these units fit on a tractor trailer, which is standard practice for modular manufacturing. It’s not four trucks that are coming, it’s one trailer. That trailer is designed to go down any major highway in the US without any special permitting. You don’t need a flagger or escort or any of that. It’s really ready to go. Even the solar panels are installed and laid flat during shipping, so all of that wiring is done beforehand. To give you an example how long it would take to be deployed, our home arrived about 12:30 in the morning. We had 10 students from the University of Illinois, we hired three contracted individuals, and between the thirteen of us we were able to get the house set, completely enclose and seal it and we were propping up the solar panels and connecting power before the sun came up. If you had just lost your house in a disaster, all you need is just a clear parcel of land to facilitate the house coming in, and have an enclosed living space that would be comfortable in a matter of hours.
University of Illinois - Solar Decathlon 2011

University of Illinois – Solar Decathlon 2011

While the idea of disaster relief housing is favorable to the public, asking them to foot a bill for ‘enhanced’ designs could prove difficult. Justifying increased square footage and costs beyond the bare necessities to the general public can stop concepts like these from turning into reality. As for the University of Illinois team, they pursued a different method of executing their ideas.

When we looked at our design, we knew it wasn’t a typical FEMA response, and we understood that it’s significantly more expensive and a whole different animal than what they would normally employ. However, it is something a state organization could own or – more likely – something an insurance company would own. We talked with State Farm early on, since that’s who the disaster victims in these communities typically deal with. The insurance company can approach the victims after they just lost their house and present them with an option to build a house [of traditional construction] in a year’s time or more, or deliver a prefabricated house the same week. That’s where it really becomes a nice response. It’s not necessarily paid by the general public through taxes, but rather by the insurance companies because it makes sense for them too. They’re going to be able to mass produce these in a way that is cost effective, compared to what it would be to construct houses on an individual basis. I guess its re-tooling disaster response – we call it that because that’s what it is in our minds, but its not the exact definition that everyone else has.

The University of Illinois was able to engage insurance companies and begin a conversation on how a program could be implemented.

They worked with us a little bit to start to understand what might happen. It is a substantial investment for anyone to undertake a program like this and we understand that. Again, the house was never fully completed until it showed up here in D.C., so this is the first iteration of it. Unfortunately, to this point we haven’t had a lot of interest in starting a program like that, but it was interesting to be able to sit down at the table and start to see what the insurance companies thought of it. Unfortunately its not going into the market next week; I wish it was the case, but it at least shows you what type of house is possible in a quick response. We just proved that that our response technique can happen.

While the University of Illinois had designed their home to be located anywhere in the U.S., many teams did not follow that same route. When the Solar Decathlon announced relocating from the Mall to West Potomac Park just months away from the event, many teams were caught off-guard by the decision. I asked Michael how this change affected his team’s design, if at all.

We designed this house to be in a disaster relief situation, but we also designed it specifically for the Solar Decathlon. Actually, it helped the design of the house. When you look at the site that was on the national mall, it was set up to have a specific ‘front’ of the house. Everyone sees the front because there is one walkway in the middle between two rows of houses. On the mall, no one walks around to the backside of the house. In the past, the backside of a lot of the houses was kind of hodge-podge because they knew no one would see it. But this location in west Potomac Park that is not the case. Now you have a full view [of the back of the homes]. For our team, it became more about refining the architectural process and it helped us create a better finished product. Now we have a house you can walk around and was designed to be seen. You’ll see some houses in the competition that probably didn’t do that. (I won’t say names, but they’re two doors down to our west.) Go stand behind their house and see what you think about it. For us, the move really worked out well. We didn’t have to redesign engineering systems.

University of Illinois - Solar Decathlon 2011

University of Illinois – Solar Decathlon 2011

Even though the team intends for their home to be part of a larger Insurance pay-out program, costs are still a concern in any project. I asked Michael about how his team was able to find affordable products and whether they did their own research or if companies approached them with sponsorship.

It’s a little bit of both.  Luckily, we had success in the last competition which definitely helped get sponsorships. We do research up front on a range of products we might be interested in, then we see who’s willing to join our team. We have have a many of the same sponsors [as the last competition], but a lot of different ones, too.

While the Solar Decathlon is heavily focused on photo voltaic technology, many consumers wonder about the cost of such systems that are extraneous to a typical home. Michael broke down the costs as percentages so I could get a better understanding for how much a homeowner would need to spend on a solar array and other non-essential sustainable systems.
To give you an idea, our full PV array with all of our equipment costs between $50,000 and $60,000. That’s about a quarter of our [$250,000] budget, so it’s expensive.  If you take that out, you’re already down to $200,000 to $215,000. We have a grey water treatment system that runs about $5,000. We did all LED lighting – it’s cutting edge, state of the art, and also an educational tool. LED lighting is something based in Illinois, so we felt it was important to showcase. LED lights are at least twice of what compact fluorescents are. Then you look at the appliances – these systems are not cheap by any means.  If you really wanted to go with a base model house you could probably do it for under $100,000.
I was interested in how the team balanced the design, and whether it was driven more by the technology aspects, or if another factor was equally important in creating something that related to the average person.
It’s definitely something we wanted the average person to walk in and feel comfortable with. It’s one of the compliments that we’ve gotten throughout the week; they’ll say, “Wow, this really feels like a home”.  That’s a big compliment.  We spent a lot of time on the floor plan, and as a university that has participated in this competition before, we have a foundation for designing energy efficient homes.  The 2009 competition was based off the passive house design standard.  Because of the affordability contest, we went in with the same mindset, but we weren’t as strict in adhering to the criteria.  An example would be the windows. They are not passive house certified, but they are about a quarter the cost of passive house certified windows. They’re high performing windows, but we didn’t shell out $60,000 for our window package. Instead, it was in the $10,000-$15,000 range.
Michael had some more insights as to how they were able to keep the costs down and achieve a low construction cost.
I think the first thing to do is to realize where you’re putting all the money in a solar powered house, and that’s in the solar panels. What we tried to do upfront was save money in ways that made sense: in ways that are free.  If you look at how we designed the envelope, it’s a very efficient shape. It’s actually two rectangular volumes that share a lot of common wall.  The other savings came from window placement. Those are free decisions we can make at the design level.  I think that’s where you really start saving money ahead of time, because all of that money and energy you generate has to come in at the cost of putting solar panels on the roof. We have one of the smallest arrays on the site. We actually think the array on the roof would be enough to power the whole house. We have some architecturally incorporated solar panels on the south side that are meant to serve as an educational tool – it’s a new product and they are gorgeous panels. Because this is an educational competition as well, they were something we wanted to add to the house.
One of Michael’s team members commented on how the interdisciplinary approach was very difficult in getting everyone to agree. I followed up with Michael’s opinion on the most challenging aspect of the project.
It is difficult, and unfortunately in the educational environment, you have a top down organization where it is kind of ‘design by committee’. Students have other interests and classes and it becomes a very hard and long process. I think it’s a part of everyone learning together, so it’s a necessary evil but it is hard in the university environment. Everyone has their own schedules; it’s not an office where everyone shows up from 9-5. It’s a much different environment, so scheduling becomes a nightmare. But you work it out.
University of Illinois - Solar Decathlon 2011

University of Illinois – Solar Decathlon 2011

After looking at the amazing houses that these schools produce, I wondered how Michael felt this event and project prepared him for a career.

It’s fantastic. I just graduated with my masters of architecture in May and then I stayed on the project as a lead architect to finish it out. It’s such an invaluable experience. A project like this is very interdisciplinary, but at a big university with everyone at different colleges all over campus, not everyone talks. At the first stage it’s the architects and the engineers sitting down in front of blank sheets of paper asking ‘how are we going to go about designing this house?’. It’s the way it should be in the real world; its not always like that, but it’s a good practice for how we should design buildings. When you work together at that stage you start to get a really integrated product. You carry it forward – the experiences just keep adding up. You have 2 years of experience working one on one with engineers, professionals, the building contractor, big corporations for sponsorships – its the conversations that happen that are really invaluable – it’s the real world. That’s the nice thing about this project is that it gives students real world experience (and not real world in quotations). You’re building a house with actual products and cutting edge technology.

It was great to spend some time learning about the competition and the University of Illinois design from Michael. It is quite apparent to me that this project has made a big impact on him, and will continue to have lasting effects on his school and community.

For more images of the University of Illinois entry and other homes from the tour, check out the albums here.

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