Fifth-year student Stephen Messinger says Team Boston's Solar Decathlon house is designed to educate the public that sustainable living can improve our lives.
Fifth-year student Stephen Messinger says Team Boston's Solar Decathlon house is designed to educate the public that sustainable living can improve our lives.

Team website: Coolest features: Heat glass window technology that captures low-angle winter sun energy in an embedded thermal mass to provide warmth on cold nights; 28 solar panels that each uses micro-inverters, instead of a traditional single inverter, to convert direct current into alternating current; and feedback system that allows homeowners to monitor the performance of the house via the Internet or handheld device.

Technology/Product highlights: Solar thermal for water heating and radiant floor system; ductless heat pump; energy recovery ventilator; fiber-cement panel; Western red cedar siding; 2½-inch rigid foam exterior insulation; cellulose insulation; radiant heated floors; and paper countertops.

As its name suggests, the Curio.House is designed to trigger curiosity about how well-designed homes can help save energy, money, and the health of the planet.

“It’s examining sustainable living, so we weren’t thinking about it as just a house,” says Steven Messinger, project director and a fifth-year M.Arch candidate at Boston Architectural College. “We were thinking about how we could educate ourselves and the public about how we can improve the way we live and how the living environment can improve the way we live.”

Curio is about using technology to improve life, but Team Boston also focused its efforts on affordability and making the home accessible to a larger pool of the home buying public. In the process, the team hopes to dispel the myth that being green means spending gobs of money.

Students took a more moderate approach, designing a house that’s a blend of flashy technology and old-fashion Yankee thrift. “Pretty much everything on the house—except for two items—is off the shelf,” Messinger says. “You can choose this, and you can buy it.”

The house uses readily available products such as Western red cedar siding, cellulose insulation, paper countertops, and standard glass doors. The team’s view is that “you don’t need to jump to technology you’ve never seen before or heard of to be sustainable,” Messinger notes.

But this is a design and technology competition after all, so the house is still tricked out with whiz-bang gewgaws that will likely be completely new to the average visitor. One such feature is the “water wall”—a wall that’s made from sheets of glass with a water-like gel sandwiched in the middle.

The south-facing glass panels capture low-angle winter sun energy during the day and then release the warmth on cold nights, thereby relieving the stress on the HVAC system. Moreover, the team incorporated an energy monitoring system that provides real-time feedback so homeowners know how much energy they are using and when they are using it.

Team Boston even designed the solar system with affordability in mind. Instead of installing a solar array with one converter that changes direct current from the sun into usable alternating current, Team Boston used 28 individual solar panels that each has its own micro-converter.

“What this means is that you can add one panel at a time,” Messinger explains. “People who are concerned with affordability and getting into sustainable living might say ‘I can’t afford to put down $30,000 or $50,000 on solar panels.’ But they can put down a smaller first-cost and add more panels over time.”

The idea is that people need to know what’s possible, Messinger says. “You can make adjustments to the way you live or at least look at the choices you make,” he says. “People want to make a better choice, but what they don’t have is enough information to make a better choice.” Team Boston hopes Curio.House is a step in the right direction.

Nigel F. Maynard is a senior editor with Builder magazine.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Washington, DC, Boston, MA.