The strange little house on the waterfront

Stevens solar building ready for spotlight

Even among ongoing construction in Hoboken, the little house on Frank Sinatra Drive stands out like a sore thumb.
For one thing, the structure sits in an empty lot at the tip of Castle Point, its only neighbors a low office building and the mighty Hudson River. Then there’s the layout—single story, raised on pilings, vinyl siding…and are those deck chairs?
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony this past Wednesday, the open secret of the Hoboken’s newest and most unique single-family home was finally revealed.
The structure is Stevens Institute of Technology’s entry in the 2015 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, a biennial competition that challenges schools to develop an innovative, aesthetically pleasing, solar-powered house that consumes zero net energy.
In a month, the state-of-the-art dwelling known as the SURE House will be completely dismantled and trucked across the country to Irvine, Calif., where the contest is being held. Once reconstructed, it will spend nine days running through a battery of activities meant to mimic typical energy usage.
Stevens came in 13th and fourth respectively in the last two iterations of the Decathlon, and they feel well-positioned to grab the gold this year. With luck, the SURE House will stand out once again among the 17 teams selected for the upcoming challenge.

Holding in the heat

The basic premise of the Solar Decathlon is simple enough – complete a raft of household tasks, like hosting a dinner party and doing laundry, all while consuming less than 175 kilowatt hours of energy and generating at least as much.
However, the design and planning required to hit this benchmark is anything but simple. A team of over 60 undergraduate and graduate students, along with around a dozen faculty members, have been hard at work on the SURE House since spring 2014.
The SURE House’s roof is adorned with 30 solar panels donated by NRG Home Solar. Together, they produce most of the energy for the building, including 75 percent of its hot water, according to Stevens undergrad Alex Carpenter.

“The idea is to drive your energy consumption way down long before you ever start generating energy.” – Ed May
A special photovoltaic heater uses solar power directly to heat the house’s water, explained Carpenter, and an extra-insulated tank acts like a “giant thermal battery” to keep it hot all night.
Indeed, the SURE House itself behaves like a massive insulation unit, designed to meet the strict standards of the Passive House movement. Its triple-pane glass doors form a perfect seal when closed, the ceiling is lined with an airtight membrane, and a special filter captures all the heat from the air leaving the house’s ventilation system.
“The idea is to drive your energy consumption way down long before you ever start generating energy,” said Ed May, the project manager for the SURE House.

Storm safe

Despite their confidence in the SURE House’s energy-saving abilities, the Stevens team knows from past experience that just hitting a zero balance isn’t enough to win the Solar Decathlon.
In light of the devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy, the team decided to make their zero-energy house a hurricane-proof structure suitable for the Jersey Shore (‘SURE House’ doubles as a pun on ‘shore house’ and is a portmanteau of the dual goals of sustainability and resilience).
In fact, the house has been specially designed for a waterfront plot in the Shore community of Seaside Park. Win or lose, it will be permanently installed in the borough, where it is slated to become a visitor center.
The whole structure is built like a boat to seal out any water. Beneath its vinyl siding and stretched across the basement is a continuous black plastic sheath, joined at the seams with marine adhesive.
“We’ve drawn very heavily from the marine industry for a lot of this technology for the house,” said May, “and we’re adopting a lot of their methods and materials and applying them at a residential scale.”
This type of so-called dry flood-proofing is common on commercial buildings but not residential ones, said May, because it encourages residents to stay in their homes during flood events.
The SURE House team addressed this conundrum by making their structure fully sealable only from the outside. Where a window wall opens onto the house’s deck, custom-designed flood shutters act as an awning until closed in advance of a storm, completely sealing the house.
In the aftermath of a storm, the SURE House can even serve as a hub for the community. According to Stevens undergrad Greg Putlock, the house uses a “transformerless converter” to harvest its solar energy when off the electric grid, powering wireless phone chargers in the kitchen area.
By fully flood-proofing the structure, the Stevens team will be able to avoid elevating it on massive pilings above the projected flood elevation in Seaside Park, like many Jersey Shore homeowners have done since Sandy.
“When you start elevating [houses] up on 15-foot piers,” said May, “it becomes really bizarre and sort of unpleasant.”

Setting an example

The real success of designs like the SURE House depends on how much they are able to inspire changes in how residences are built on a national and international scale.
“I dream of the day that every single structure built in this country and anywhere in the world is a structure where the building itself produces the energy that it needs,” said Stevens President Nariman Farvardin at the Aug. 12 ceremony.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer congratulated the SURE House team for creating a structure that consumed 90 percent less energy that the average home. “We need for every home in the United States to be built with this kind of technology,” she said.
According to May, most of the technology and materials used in the house are readily available for purchase in the United States, though they are unsurprisingly not always the cheapest alternative.
The only truly unique aspects of the house are the flood shutters, which were custom designed for the project. With enough interest, though, the shutters could someday be available for sale, pushed by the very Stevens grads who created them.
“This type of product is exactly the type of thing we like to see our students engaged in because it solves a real problem and it’s marketable,” said May.
Through the efforts of places like Stevens, Hoboken is becoming a leader for green infrastructure in the New York region.
In his second career as an architect, Stevens Industry Professor John Nastasi, the lead faculty member for SURE House, is designing a 10-unit condo complex on Adams that will also follow Passive House standards. Other Hoboken developers like Bijou Properties are incorporating sustainable infrastructure like green roofs and cogeneration turbines into projects around town.

Carlo Davis may be reached at

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