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Here's the Apartment of the Future: It's Efficient and Affordable

By Amy Zimmer | August 25, 2015 6:44pm
 City Tech Team DURA student project manager Chantal Manning stands in front of the house she and her peers are building.
City Tech Team DURA student project manager Chantal Manning stands in front of the house she and her peers are building.
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Chantal Manning

BROOKLYN — For the next generation of New York City's architects and construction managers, the future of housing is all about design, energy efficiency, resiliency and affordability.

Many are thinking about how homes can withstand the likes of another event such as Superstorm Sandy, and that the realities of life in New York City, where having a flexible floor plan to meet the needs of growing families — at a reasonable price tag — is paramount.

A team of roughly 60 students from City Tech, CUNY's technical college in Downtown Brooklyn, hope the pre-fabricated home they're almost done constructing at the Brooklyn Navy Yard can be a model on how to achieve this.

Their structure is one of 20 model homes built by student teams worldwide that will compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's 2015 Solar Decathlon, a biannual event held in California in October. Before the home is taken apart and loaded onto six tractor trailers for its cross country trip, the public will be able to tour the structure at a send-off party for the team at the Navy Yard on Thursday.

Students from departments like architectural technology, construction management and civil engineering technology and others spent the past two years creating the solar-powered DURA house, which stands for Diverse, Urban, Resilient, Adaptable — the principles the teammates kept in mind when designing the space.

The roughly 1,000-square-foot stackable structure will be a net zero home. It adheres to the rigorous "passive house" standards and will be essentially airtight, keeping hot air in during the winter and cool air in during summer with an air filtration system circulating clean air.

(more text below these renderings)

It uses materials designed not only to weather catastrophic storms, but also to aide relief efforts in such events since it is mobile housing that can be quickly assembled.

"This is going to raise the quality of life for the people who live in it," said Chantal Manning, a student project manager for the home, who graduated from City Tech last year but continued working on the home this year because "this is a project you can't leave — something like this, you want to see it succeed."

While the decathlon focuses on single-family homes, Team DURA wanted to ensure that its entry would be something that also worked in a dense urban environment like New York, Manning explained.

"One thing that makes us unique is our diversity and urbanism," said Manning, whose school ranks first in student diversity among its peers in the U.S. News & World Report.

"In Brooklyn's hyper-dense environment, everyone is living on top of each other, but," she added, "[in our design] we still have a porch in front and back."

To meet the needs of a dense urban environment, the home allows for stacked modules and puts its vertical solar array on its south side rather than on its rooftop.

 Get a glimpse of City Tech's eco-model home before it ships off to an international solar house contest.
Apartment of the Future: Resilient, Energy Efficient, Adaptable, Affordable
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Inside, the loft-like space was envisioned to be responsive to residents' changing needs with an office that can be closed off into a second bedroom and a desk that turns into bunk beds, explained Amanda Waal, an assistant faculty member advising the team.

The roughly 200-square-foot patio also serves as an eating area, with a cooking stove that can easily be moved from the kitchen to the outdoor space.

"In some ways, people say it's a small house, but by New York standards, it's big," said Waal, who herself was a student on a Solar Decathlon team in 2011 while studying at Parsons School of Design.

The hope is to make energy efficiency "the norm," Waal said. "It teaches that energy-efficient building is not more difficult than other buildings."

The home was built thanks to volunteer labor of CUNY students and in-kind donations from an array of companies. Without these donations, it would cost about $300,000 to construct, according to the team's analysis, Waal said.

"With passive house, the energy savings outweigh the costs," Waal added.

Mayor Bill de Blasio's sustainability agenda, OneCity, which aims to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, discusses the importance of holding new construction to higher energy standards, like passive house, which allows for savings of up to 90 percent on space heating and cooling costs.

Constructing high-performing building can be done while keeping costs down, the report noted, citing Knickerbocker Commons, a six-story, 24-unit affordable housing complex in Bushwick designed by Chris Benedict for the Ridgewood Bushwick Senior Center, which opened last year.

Each unit in the building has its own ventilation system and radiators for heating and airtight window air conditioning units for cooling. (Compartmentalized apartments that have their own air also help stop the spread of things like bedbug infestations, Benedict noted.)

"From affordable to market to luxury, if you can design a building holistically, [the passive house pieces] won't cost more," said Benedict, who has been disappointed that many established firms have been slow to change the way they build.

Knickerbocker Commons and another she designed in Bushwick were the country's first mid-sized apartment building to meet passive house standards. 

But Benedict is pleased how passive house standards have become "matter of fact" for those on the City Tech project.

"What has happened is really great: it's become sexy. It's become something the students want to learn and be a part of," Benedict said.

Team DURA's model home will either be donated to a veteran in California or, if the team can raise enough funds to bring it back to New York, will be donated for use here, Waal said.

Visitors are invited to tour the model house at the send-off party for City Tech's Team DURA at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Thursday, Aug. 27, from 6-8 p.m. To RSVP, click here.