Three years ago on the morning of October 30, 2012, over 8 million Americans woke up without power as superstorm Sandy plowed through the Eastern seaboard. Over the course of seven days, 147 people lives were lost, more than 650,000 homes were damaged or destroyed, and $65 billion dollars of economic activity was forfeited. The entire country watched in horror as millions of Americans' lives were torn apart.

Among those glued to their TV that week were 36 students from the Stevens Institute of Technology, who would eventually go on to design and build one of the most advanced, sustainable, resilient, and hurricane-proof houses ever constructed. Driven by the desire to build sustainable coastal housing that could withstand the beatings of a storm like Sandy, the team developed the groundbreaking SURE (SUstainable REsilience) HOUSE.

The students constructed the SURE HOUSE for the biannual Solar Decathlon, a competition organized by the U.S. Department of Energy in which 18 college teams compete to see who can design the most efficient, cost-effective and appealing houses powered entirely by the sun. Each house is scored based on its performance in the following categories:

  • Affordability
  • Appliances
  • Architecture
  • Comfort Zone
  • Communications
  • Commuting
  • Energy Balance
  • Engineering
  • Home Life
  • Market Appeal

The winning house must not only impress engineers, it has to appeal to consumers as well. This year the Stevens Institute of Technology excelled in all areas and took home the top spot. The SURE HOUSE can withstand 5 feet of flooding, produces up to 13,000 watts of electricity from solar power, uses about 90 percent less energy than the average New Jersey house, and sports a sleek, modern look. Powered 100 percent by solar panels, the house is equipped with retractable roofs, heat recovery ventilation systems, fiber-composite materials, and flood-proof elevation columns. The structure can maintain power during a grid outage, and has exterior outlets to help neighbors charge their devices when they need them most.

Apart from the flashy folding panels and stylish indoor/outdoor living areas, one of the most notable features of the SURE HOUSE is its extreme efficiency. This may not be its most eye-catching feature, but it is its most important and it permeates the entire design. The SURE HOUSE blows past even the most rigorous energy efficiency standards by using high-performance insulation, precise detail design (to eliminate air leakage), intelligent shading using a shutter and louver system (to prevent the house from getting too hot), and waste heat recovery to ensure very efficient heating and cooling and superior indoor air quality (this technique is known as energy recovery ventilation). The space requires so little energy to heat or cool that the team didn't just downsize the HVAC system, they eliminated it! Energy efficient and resilient designs like these produce substantial environmental and economic gains for every dollar invested, as well as numerous benefits for occupants' health, safety, and well-being.

The SURE HOUSE, along with all of the other impressive structures from this year’s Solar Decathlon, show that the future of sustainable infrastructure is in good hands. Looking back on the destruction caused by Sandy, it is encouraging to know that the bright minds of tomorrow are already working hard to prepare us for what is to come.


Author: Michael Martina