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Taking on Sun City

TeamMTL brings innovative net-zero home to Dezhou, China
February 9, 2017
By Maeve Haldane

Imagine this is your class project: design and build a fully functional, two-story, solar-powered house. Take it down, transport it overseas, rebuild and furnish it on-site in China. Last step? Host a dinner party and movie night to demonstrate its livability. 

That’s the task for a team of students from Concordia and McGill universities. They’ve joined forces to compete in the Solar Decathlon China 2018, which will be held in Dezhou, China, a solar-energy manufacturing capital. The green-building competition features 22 teams from 11 countries and 49 universities. 

The multidisciplinary group, called TeamMTL, includes faculty and students from Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Arts, Faculty of Engineering and Computer Science and John Molson School of Business (JMSB). Labs providing some of the wide-ranging support for the project include the university’s Centre for Zero-Energy Building Studies, Topological Media Lab and David O’Brien Centre for Sustainable Enterprise. 

The Solar Decathlon is a life-changing experience for participants and a lesson in sustainability for visitors. A projected 2 million people will walk through the site over three months. 

Launched in 2002 by the United States Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon has run biennially since 2005 in the U.S. and has expanded to include international competitions. It consists of 10 contests. The buildings are judged by such criteria as energy efficiency, marketability, affordability, water conservation and use, air quality and temperature control. An electric car charged by the building’s power supply will be driven around the site. Residents must have enough power to have toasty showers and wash their clothes. 

TeamMTL’s design for the deep-performance dwelling TeamMTL’s design for the Deep-Performance Dwelling is inspired by typical Montreal row houses and influenced by traditional Chinese siheyuan courtyard architecture.

TeamMTL’s design — called the Deep-Performance Dwelling — is modelled after Montreal’s typical row houses and, with its inside courtyard, also nods to traditional Chinese siheyuan courtyard architecture. It features a net-zero energy system, generating as much energy as it consumes. Since the Deep- Performance Dwelling will remain in China permanently, the team plans to build a similar one in Montreal. 

TeamMTL originated with Bruno Lee, BEng 07, assistant professor in Concordia’s Department of Building, Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Michael Jemtrud, director of McGill’s Facility for Architectural Research in Media and Mediation. The pair has worked together on sustainable buildings for years and their proposal was accepted by the Solar Decathlon Organizing Committee in May 2016. 

Meeting challenges of large-scale collaboration

A project like this presents many challenges. The logistics of designing and building the entire house down to the last outlet and sofa throw are one thing. Without a partner on the ground in China, as many teams have, just figuring out who will receive the shipping container full of materials and get it to the site is a feat in itself. 

Another challenge is keeping everyone informed, engaged and happy. That’s roughly 100 collaborators — students and faculty members — within five different academic departments across two universities. Decisions must be made early to meet deadlines. Team members must respect each other’s roles and timelines for deliverables. Architects, engineers, designers — all must communicate with each other, collaborate, debate, inform each other and keep the project rolling. 

The team aims to create an affordable house that, were it on the market, would cost about $250,000 to build. While their $800,000 budget may sound like a lot, materials, prototyping, renting a work space big enough to build the home in, and sending a team of students to China quickly drive up the project cost. To help make ends meet, the team accepts sponsorships, both financial and material, which provide an opportunity for Canadian businesses to showcase their green goods in China. The Concordia team is also fundraising via the university’s crowdfunding site, FundOne.

“The Solar Decathlon competition is essentially a pedagogical exercise in innovation, collaboration and practical integration,” says Carmela Cucuzzella, BFA 05, BCSc 90, associate professor in the Department of Design and Computation Arts and Concordia University Research Chair in Integrated Design, Ecology, and Sustainability for the Built Environment. “It’s pragmatic and exciting. Students exercise communication and rhetoric skills to pitch their ideas to the other team members. It gives them a chance to work with a large, shared project that will be built in full scale and visited by millions,” she says.

 Design and Computation Arts Participating on such a large-scale, interdisciplinary project offers a rich, real-world experience for students like Annabelle Daoust and Mark Unterberger, both final-year design students, pictured with Carmela Cucuzzella (centre), associate professor in the department of Design and Computation Arts.

A few months later, students in Concordia’s Department of Design and Computation Arts were brought in to create interiors and fittings, communications and documentation, and the accompanying exhibition space. Department of Contemporary Dance students look at the use of space and the environment’s responsiveness through their Topological Media Lab. Making fiscal sense of the project are JMSB students, who examine the building’s marketability and economic feasibility. 

This isn’t the first Solar Decathlon for Lee, TeamMTL’s Concordia faculty lead. He participated as a student in the 2005 competition in Washington, D.C. Back then, the team just built the house on Loyola Campus, put it on a truck and drove it to the National Mall in Washington. 

“Coming back as a faculty member is very meaningful and I find it fun. It’s also a lot of hard work, which I didn’t realize!” Lee says. Besides research and design, the team must consider factors like sponsorships, media and transport. 

Building sustainable homes 

A member of Concordia’s Centre for Zero Energy Building Studies, Lee specializes in large-scale simulations, in which myriad variables are tested for energy efficiency, such as the size, positioning and type of a window. 

When approaching the design of the home, Lee says, “the baseline is a level of comfort, then you ask if it is an efficient home.” Will the building itself be able to reduce energy consumption through the efficiency of its envelope — walls, floors, roof, windows and doors? Is the surface reflective or shaded? Inside the home, is the lighting, heating, cooling and so on efficient? 

To reduce their environmental footprint, Lee says the team chose a manufacturer to prefabricate the walls and roof to their specifications. “It’s a modular design, just like Lego. Hopefully things fit together,” he jokes. Prefabrication improves the building quality because there’s no on-site variability like rainy weather or a carpenter in a lousy mood. 

On-site construction is actually incredibly wasteful. “More than half the material ends up in the dumpsite,” says Lee. 

The engineers will install a building- integrated photovoltaic/thermal (BIPV/T) system, similar to the one on Concordia’s John Molson Building. The system efficiently collects and uses solar energy to provide electric and thermal energy. 

A master’s student in the Department of Building Engineering, Navid Pourmousavian is engineering student lead for TeamMTL. He specializes in building-energy performance, as well as design and simulation of heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. “Buildings are responsible for a large portion of the world’s energy consumption, about 40 per cent,” Pourmousavian says. “Net-zero projects are a huge step towards energy reduction and encourage the adoption of sustainable design and products.”

Integrating diverse ideas 

Once the architecture and engineering students were moving forward with the building design, Cucuzzella put her Department of Design and Computation Arts team to work in wildly different capacities. Her 16 independent study students, plus one volunteer design program graduate, were given tasks ranging from planning and managing social media to selecting lighting and interior finishing to figuring out how to stuff all the pieces into a shipping container. 

“If architects consider themselves generalists, designers are even more so. Their knowledge is broad and speculative, yet also critical and pragmatic. It makes them ideal integrators of varying ideas,” she says. 

Cucuzzella encourages her students to bring a discerning eye to environmental design. “Projects that appear to be sustainable yet do not provide any benefit are inherently counterproductive, since there is a false perception of responsibility taken,” she says. “Unfortunately we see more and more ‘demonstrative devices’ to communicate environmentalism.” 

Colouring a building green, for example, may trumpet sustainability, but doesn’t actually save energy. “I refer to this as the drift — from environmental performance of the building to the communication of the environmental performance of the building,” she says. “This critical analysis is not done just for the sake of critique, but rather to improve practice by helping designers unify their abstract ideas and conceptual goals to concrete proposals.” 

One of Cucuzzella’s graduating students, Mark Unterberger, says, “For some people, designers just pretty things up — it’s superficial. But we’re critical designers, we have to think about why we are doing all this, what the implications are, who the stakeholders are.” 

“We’re thinkers,” states Annabelle Daoust, also a design student in her final year. She has a background in studio arts and construction. Daoust is a key part of the construction team and works with the prefab pieces, structure, exterior envelope, all of the openings, plus detailing. The “interiors and fittings” team will furnish the inside. 

Daoust acts as the main liaison between the architecture, construction and design teams — and attends many meetings, one per week at each of Concordia and McGill. “I ask questions, see how we could push things further,” she says. 

For instance, Daoust, whose independent study is on modular building and prefabrication, tried to improve the process of converting measurements back and forth between imperial and metric. “We tried to make some changes,” she says, which ultimately didn’t work. “But that’s okay because I think it was a good discussion. The main idea is to always try to improve a project, to propose stuff for the good of the cause.” 

TeamMTL Bruno Lee (second from left), TeamMTL’s Concordia faculty lead, and Navid Pourmousavian (centre), Engineering student lead for TeamMTL, are pictured with other members of the Solar Decathlon team (from left): Jiwu Rao, Ruolin Wang, Sherif Goubran, Costa Kapsis, Andreas Athienitis, Olesia Kruglov and Zissis Ioannidis.

Discovering different ways of thinking 

Participating in the Solar Decathlon teaches students how different groups think. Daoust sometimes found it easiest to pick up a pen and paper and sketch an idea. “Explaining while we draw is the best. It’s very technical and we have to go into details for the others to really understand what we’re saying,” she says. 

Daoust explains the team has to manage how the materials — including the modules, furnishings and exhibition materials — will fit into the shipping containers, though some items will be bought in China, another cost to calculate. As well, TeamMTL must account for transit time, which could take 80 days. Even if they put the shipping container on a train to British Columbia first, the materials would still spend 30 days at sea. 

At the competition, each team is given exhibition space alongside the home. Unterberger is the exhibition team manager and is responsible for signage and creating a tour of the home. Wearing multiple hats, he’s also health and safety officer. 

The exhibition space enables people to learn about the home before they tour it. “They’ll be able to look at the home in a more informed manner, more holistically,” Unterberger says. With a background in cinema special effects and makeup, he has interned with an exhibition design company and is thinking way beyond brochures. “We’re dedicating a massive amount of space. We’re in the process of developing the content. It’s not a competition requirement, but for us it’s sort of like the thesis of the project,” he says. 

“The technical people want to show the envelope and structural elements, the media team wants us to focus on haptics [how touch is used] and interactivity,” Unterberger says. “But we on the exhibition team have to balance the stories and see what will strengthen the overall narrative. For us it’s important to show the context of living in a dense urban environment, living in Montreal, the seasonalities, all the things that factor into our lives in Montreal.” 

The exhibition space will also highlight innovations and interactive elements. “The challenging part of my job is figuring out how to render technical information interesting. How can I inject a narrative into very specialized content?” Unterberger says. 

One very locally inspired idea the team is considering is to hire two muralists — one from Montreal and one from China — to create artwork on one of the façade walls. “We might even have a collaborative mural space that people will interact with during the competition, and we’ll bring it back to Montreal,” he says. 

Daoust likes to think of the exhibition space as linking back to the architectural curation for which Montreal has been known since Expo 67. “It’s a kind of legacy,” she says. 

Unterberger and Daoust are excited to see a real end product. “That doesn’t happen frequently enough with our school projects. This home will be built. People will walk through it. It won’t collapse!” Unterberger says. “And you see how ideas you infused in the project will actually work. That’s phenomenal feedback for a student.” 

Daoust relishes the freedom they’ve been given. “We are invited to take our own initiative,” she says. “It really helps me see what our role as designers will be in the world. I think we’re going to work more and more in collaboration with other professionals, such as engineers and architects. It’s really neat to finally live it, what it means to be a designer and all we can provide.”

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