Solar Futures: Redefining Sustainable Architecture at Woodbury University (Part 1 of 2)

3D printing the walls of the micro-house (Photo courtesy of HBC).

This is the first in a two-part series.

If you were to visit Woodbury University’s campus today, you would find a futuristic, single-family micro-house, seemingly out of place among Spanish-style dorms and buildings from the 1980s. The micro-house is, in fact, right at home on the Burbank campus, serving as an indicator of the larger social impact that Woodbury has continued to have on Los Angeles architecture since 1884. It represents Woodbury’s mission to transform students into innovative professionals who will contribute responsibly to the global community by embodying the Woodbury principals of civic engagement, design thinking, and environmental stewardship.  

The micro-house is the result of Woodbury’s School of Architecture (WSOA) involvement in the Solar Decathlon Build Challenge, a collegiate-level challenge posed by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The task was to design and build a creative, livable structure in the community, powered by renewable energy. The design was required to address and propose solutions to real world issues within the construction industry. Under the leadership of Department Chair, Aaron Gensler, and Dean, Heather Flood, Kishani De Silva (Construction Management Chair, Lead Faculty) and Hector Rodriguez (Adjunct Faculty) served as Faculty advisors throughout the project, which began in January 2022 and spanned about 15 months to substantial completion. WSOA’s student-led team, referred to as Solar Futures, developed and delivered their schematic designs, construction plans, and design presentations in April 2022. Solar Futures’ design, which addressed both social and environmental issues, was a Build Challenge finalist, granting WSOA partial funding from the DOE to bring their project to fruition. Permitting and construction began thereafter, and was substantially completed in the first quarter of 2023.

Their innovative design was a series of firsts – first permitted 3D printed prototype in Los Angeles and potentially the first permitted greywater use for toilet flushing in a single family context. As forays into new territory often do, the permitting process presented roadblocks and learning curves. By leveraging the insight of sponsors, partners, and City departments, as well as faculty expertise, the team was able to overcome these hurdles. The team gained first-hand experience in navigating impacts from climate change, with about 14 atmospheric rivers passing through LA during project development. Not only did they remain resilient, but also learned the importance of designing for climate resilience.

Solar Futures’ design addresses three critical and immediate challenges faced by the LA community – and beyond. First, the project approaches environmental stewardship in a forward-thinking and sustainable way, implementing technology to create standalone structures with decentralized utilities and self-sustaining facilities. The team integrated innovative solutions, such as 3D printing, energy storage, and material selection. Second, the design offers an answer to the rising cost of construction and housing. By creating small structures that are adaptive and adjustable with a quick turnaround time, the community can combat the housing affordability crisis in a scalable and meaningful way. Lastly, Solar Futures’ solution addresses a concern that has been amplified in the post-COVID era – more and more people are rapidly being priced out of LA, contributing to an ever-increasing rate of homelessness. Small, as-built structures can potentially combat housing insecurity by creating scalable and affordable shelters. In doing so, the availability of more affordable housing developments will drastically reduce the time it takes for the placement process, as well as increase the number of permanent housing placements overall.

The Solar Futures team during the 3D printing stage of construction. (Photo courtesy of HBC)

One of the most pivotal components of this project was the team’s ability to engage Woodbury, industry partners, and the greater Los Angeles community in support of a larger common goal. In addition to being an opportunity for WSOA students to gain real-world training, they became immersed in the community, gathering feedback from industry partners, financial support from local patrons, and hands-on experience with some of the most innovative companies in the built environment. They communicated the importance of their project, as well as its implications, and were able to raise external funds for the prototype on Woodbury’s campus. Community resources came from all facets of the industry: Ikea helped with furnishings, Emergent oversaw the 3D printing, Nous Engineering helped with the structural work, Breen Design Group assisted with mechanical systems; and Mitsubishi Electric donated an HVAC system. Howard Building Corporation was one of many who provided the group with financial backing. The overwhelming support of the University and greater community was central to realizing the project, and was, in part, due to the team’s fresh perspective and groundbreaking methods of green building.

What Solar Futures accomplished has the potential to change the trajectory of construction. These college students worked together to leverage technology, community support, and their collective knowledge as students of architecture to pave paths where the industry has not yet ventured. The result is a viable and scalable solution with the potential to make the world a better place for future generations.

Coming Next

Part Two of this article will detail the features of the micro-house, as well as the implications for the students involved in the project.

(posted 12/21/23)

About the Author

Taylor Coleman is the Creative Manager at Howard Building Corporation (HBC). HBC is a commercial general contracting firm founded in 1983, servicing a broad spectrum of clients from two Southern California offices. They are 100% employee owned and have built the company on the strength of their relationships and the success of their projects.

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