Launch Slideshow

Affordably Eco-Friendly

Low-maintenance and off-the-shelf highlght the Zerow House.

Affordably Eco-Friendly

Low-maintenance and off-the-shelf highlght the Zerow House.

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    Stephano Palterna/DOE

    Rice University’s green wall provides passive cooling and aesthetic appeal to the team’s Zerow solar-powered house. The 520-square-foot dwelling will have a permanent home in a low-income neighborhood in Houston.

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    Stephano Palterna/DOE

    The Rice University Zerow House is long and narrow so that it can fit into a group of existing row houses in Houston. It's clad with Galvalume panels that are sturdy as well as low maintenance.

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    Stephano Palterna/DOE

    The Zerow House is low budget, but it includes PV panels, a solar hot water system, a dual-flush toilet, spray-foam insulation, bamboo flooring, and a wood-composite deck.

Team Web Site: www.ricesolardecathlon.org

Instead of designing a structure just to win rave reviews at the Solar Decathlon event in Washington, D.C., team members from Rice University said their main goal was to build a dwelling they could give back to the community.

So, the team negotiated an agreement with Project Row Houses, a community development organization, to give their Zerow House a permanent home in Houston’s low-income Third Ward after the October competition.

“We wanted to make the house as eco-friendly and as affordable as possible,” says Roque Sanchez, the lead engineering student, noting the total cost of the 520-square-foot dwelling is $144,000, including rooftop photovoltaic (PV) panels.

To keep costs down, the house, which is long and skinny in order to fit into the neighborhood in which it will be residing, was constructed with off-the-shelf products and materials, Sanchez notes. Nevertheless, the house contains a lot of features that would not be found in a typical low-budget project, including PV panels, a solar hot water system, a dual-flush toilet, spray-foam insulation, and a wood-composite deck.

The Zerow House may be low in price, but it’s certainly not short on style. The Galvalume exterior metal panels, which are made from 25% to 35% recycled materials, shimmer in the sunlight and give the home a “wow” factor. What's more, they resist corrosion from Houston’s humid climate. “They are very sturdy and low maintenance and offer a long life,” says Sanchez. Meanwhile, the Ikea cabinetry, Elfa wire shelving, and bamboo flooring provide a clean, modern look inside.

The dwelling’s interior contains two unique areas: a “wet core” and a “light core.” The wet core bundles all the water and energy systems in an 8-by-10-foot space, including appliances, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, and solar systems. The wet core, the Rice team contends, significantly reduces material, installation, and maintenance costs.
Designed with prefabrication in mind, the team says the wet core holds promise for building cheaper houses because it allows contractors to bring in a self-contained, pre-assembled unit and build a comparatively inexpensive frame around it.

Backyard living is highly desirable in Houston most of the year, except for the summer months. So the light core--a flexible, exterior space shaded by a cantilevered structure--provides a direct extension of the interior, but without the need for air conditioning, the students say.

Finally, native plants such as coral honeysuckle and star jasmine growing on one exterior wall contribute to passive cooling and provide soothing surroundings on the porch.

Jean Dimeo is Chief Editor, Online for EcoHome.