Penn State students design affordable, eco-friendly homes for local families

Lauren Ingram
July 13, 2015

A three-bedroom, two-bath duplex with an open-concept main level, back deck and view of Tussey Mountain might sound like the makings of a standard State College house. But this future listing isn’t for just any ordinary abode. The soon-to-be-built home might be the new model for affordable housing in Centre County.

When the State College Community Land Trust (SCCLT), a local nonprofit housing assistance organization, approached Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture about designing an affordable, eco-friendly duplex for two local families, a team of faculty and student architects and engineers quickly made the project their mission.

After nearly a semester of sketching, creating digital renderings, combing through building materials and weighing costs, their design will come to life next year on University Drive, about a mile away from campus and downtown State College.

Until now, SCCLT has always purchased properties in the State College borough, fixed them up and sold only the houses (not the land itself) to approved first-time buyers. While the model has been successful for many years -- and helped 50 local families -- the land trust wanted to do something new to make mortgages and utility bills even more affordable for first-time buyers on tight budgets.

“For many people, energy costs can be a barrier to home ownership in a community that already has a shortage of affordable housing,” said Peg Hambrick, a volunteer and former president of SCCLT. “There’s a misconception that building a sustainable house is expensive, but it doesn’t have to be -- and that’s what we’re trying to figure out with this GreenBuild initiative. It makes a lot of sense for our clients who might be able to afford a mortgage but not the high utility bills that come with it.”  

By designing and building a net-zero home -- which on an annual basis can reduce utility bills by producing as much energy as it consumes -- the Penn State students and SCCLT are hoping to develop a prototype for accessible, eco-friendly housing throughout Centre County.  

“As students, it was our job to dream up and design a home that will not only be affordable, but also sustainable, functional and beautiful for the families who will one day live there,” said Chauntel Duriez, a master’s student studying architecture. “A lot of the class projects we do as architecture students are designs for fictional clients, but this has been such an amazing experience because it’s going to have an impact on real people.”

Influenced by historic Pennsylvania architecture, the team drew inspiration from 19th-century bank barns for the exterior of the duplex. Often built into hillsides, these rectangular barns have steep roofs and can be accessed from both the lower and upper ground levels. On the inside, the students kept the space modern with an open concept and 1,440-square feet of living space per unit.  

Through a special spring semester course offering, College of Arts and Architecture professors Lisa Iulo, Ali Memari and Scott Wing -- all of whom have experience working on affordable, eco-friendly housing projects for Habitat for Humanity, Native American reservations and other organizations -- mentored the team of 30 undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students.

The class also worked with SCCLT staff and volunteers who know what first-time buyers want and need in a home.

In addition to lots of storage space, rooms that can serve multiple purposes and separate yards for each half of the duplex, SCCLT asked the student architects to design a home that would save on both initial construction and long-term energy costs.  

“Our goal was to get to net zero in the most affordable way possible,” said Kyle Macht, the team’s leader and a master’s student in architecture. “The Centre County Land Trust and other groups are also interested in what we’re doing and looking to us for guidance. So, unlike other net-zero housing projects I’ve worked on, this duplex has to be accessible, durable, meet qualifications for affordable housing and be builder-ready.”

Fortunately, net-zero design is an area in which the team is well versed. In April, they won two awards in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Race to Zero Student Design Competition for design and systems integration excellence.

“To build energy-efficient buildings these days, the optimal strategy is to involve people with different backgrounds who can each bring their own ideas and expertise,” said Scott Wing, professor of architecture and the project adviser. “This integrative process is different than how buildings were designed just a short time ago, but it’s how we approached this project — the more people at the table early on to make decisions, the better.”

Because one system can affect another in a home that must function in synchronicity, architecture and engineering students with a range of specialties all played important roles. Like professional architecture firms, they relied on a variety of energy performance software to help them execute the design and make decisions about how to balance energy efficiency with cost.  

After using BeOpt software to make general decisions about the orientation and size of the house and the efficiency of windows, walls and the roof, the team turned to a more customizable product called REM/Rate to help optimize the design of the building’s systems and weather, air and thermal barrier based on cost and performance over the home’s lifetime.

“Making these decisions isn’t as simple as plugging numbers into a computer,” Wing said. “The variables are always changing and there are aesthetics to consider as well as initial versus long-term costs. For instance, the windows we evaluated balanced the short-term budget with long-term efficiency, performance and durability.”

After the cost and energy analyses, the team chose such features as photovoltaic solar panels, ENERGY STAR appliances, high-efficiency heat pumps, energy recovery ventilators for indoor air quality, and durable alternatives for siding and flooring. This summer, they’ll continue to finalize design plans with SCCLT board members, who will then choose a builder to begin construction in spring 2016.

Whether the home’s future residents are young professionals, new families or older adults, they’ll get the chance to live in one of a handful of Net-Zero-Ready-certified homes in State College.

“With this GreenBuild project it’s been about helping people live in a sustainable way: economically and environmentally. This first house is really going to be a flagship for what I hope is an ongoing process,” said Duriez. “My wish for the people who move into the duplex is that they love it as much as we already do. It’s not truly a home until people accept it, love it and make it their own.”

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  • Kyle Macht

    Kyle Macht with an early model of the duplex by architecture students Chris Cardelli, Sam Davison and Brian Kerr.

    IMAGE: Angela Card
  • Computer rendering of energy efficient house

    A rendering of the duplex by the 2015 Penn State Race to Zero team.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Penn State students collaborate with State College Community Land Trust volunteers

    Penn State students gather feedback from SCCLT volunteers about the duplex design.

    IMAGE: Courtesy of Chauntel Duriez
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Last Updated July 13, 2015