BioBuild Fellow leads student team to win 2019 SDDC

BioBuild Fellow Zach Gould and DOE Chief Architect Sam Rashkin - discussing augmented reality applications of treeHAUS (PC: John De La Rosa)

Teams competing in the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge develop creative solutions for real-world issues in the building industry. From originally more than 80 entries, 48 teams were invited as finalists in 6 divisions to attend the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge Weekend. In the end, 45 teams presented their designs to a panel of industry expert jurors, compared their projects to those of other teams, learned from presentations by thought leaders and collegiate peers, and engaged with a variety of organizations about energy careers.

Virginia Tech competed in two divisions, one of which was the residential design project TreeHAUS in the Attached Housing Division. The TreeHAUS team’s student lead was BioBuild Fellow Zach Gould, a doctoral student in Environmental Design and Planning (EDP). He recruited a team with backgrounds spread across a variety of majors and minors ranging from programs in Architecture, Building Construction, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Construction Engineering Management, Electrical Engineering, Interior Design, Landscape Architecture, Interior Design, Mechanical Engineering to Real Estate.

The team was guided by faculty advisors Georg Reichard (MLSoC), an Associate Professor in Building Construction, who has led several successful DOE student competition teams in the past, and Deidre Regan (A+D), a visiting instructor in Architecture, for whom this was the first involvement in this competition.

Over the competition weekend at NREL, the TreeHAUS project quickly emerged as a top competitor and became a central talking point of the competition. In the end, TreeHAUS won not only the Attached Housing division contest itself, but also took home the Grand Prize across all division winners. TreeHAUS convinced the jury with a vision at the intersection of ecology and technology. They leveraged ecological psychology, the influence of the environment on human behavior, along with digital tools to help our species live more lightly on this earth.

TreeHAUS is a net-positive, regenerative attached housing project inspired by the way trees collect and distribute resources in the forest. The goal of the project is to strengthen the surrounding environment and Blacksburg municipality by imagining the house as a cooperative constituent of its contextual ecology. TreeHAUS will harness energy from the sun, harvest water from the rain, and cycle resources and information throughout its community in the same way that plants and trees do in nature. The development is an affordable graduate student housing complex proposed as part of a Live/Work/Learn village at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center (VTCRC).

All of this would not have been possible without an exceptional team. Biobuild Fellow Zach Gould, whose research explores the intersection of tree systems and building systems, already participated in the 2018 competition in the Elementary School division as the student project lead, where his team achieved the 2nd place with the EOS Net-Zero Elementary School project ( Inspired by his doctoral research on mycorrhizal networks, he recruited an excellent cross-disciplinary team to develop a residential housing design that helped to realize his conceptional ideas into a real-world net-zero residential project.

Jackson Reed, a Master of Architecture student was the mastermind behind the architectural design integrating modularity concepts with biophilic design, which he then converted into inspiring visualizations through his Revit modeling and rendering skills. Philadelphia Wilkens, the  Landscape sub-team leader, integrated principles of agroforestry into the project by merging landscape design with energy efficiency modeling through simulation tools such as iTree. Alex Arshadi, who presented the landscape design in Colorado assisted and converted the concepts into drawings and presentations. Justin Gravatt, an undergraduate student double-majoring in Building Construction and Real Estate spearheaded the financial analysis and market potential sections. He was also instrumental with the crowdsourcing efforts through VTs JUMP initiative, which helped to support the travel cost for students to participate in the final event in Golden, CO. Arjun Choudhry,  a graduate student in Computer Science, was a key partner for integrating blockchain technologies and prediction modeling to optimize energy consumption across buildings. He not only created a website that features the core innovations of this project, but also programmed a web application that allows developers to explore opportunity zones across the nation.

The team also engaged with thought leaders, such as Enric Ruiz-Geli, CAUS Professor of Practice and Founder of Cloud 9, who helped the students to apply elements of fractal theory to break up the boundaries between forest and built environment and increase the permeability of the final design. Other CAUS faculty, Bobby Vance and Joe Wheeler, shared their experience from the FutureHAUS with the team, which helped to realize the envisioned modular concepts. 

VT Vice President and Dean of Graduate Education Karen DePauw provided valuable input into the graduate student housing survey as well as complimentary graduate data and statistics. Andrew McCoy, Department Head of Building Construction and the Director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research, along with Associate Director Melissa Jones, contributed their expertise related to affordability strategies, such as area median income (AMI) subsidization.

On the research side, Jaideep Pandit, Advanced Power and Propulsion Lab (APPL) Manager facilitated access to the site, which allowed to ground the project in context and also understand acoustical challenges. Steve Cox, Green kW Energy Managing Partner conducted a tour of an anaerobic digestion system and provided design assistance for biogas backup power of the project. John Seiler, a VT CNRE Faculty & Tree Physiology Expert, took the students on a tree tour and provided bio-inspired design sessions.

In terms of policy and capital investment, John Bush, VT Facilities Staff Architect and Blacksburg Town Council Member, provided helpful feedback on the emerging affordability crises and town council ideas on how to combat those. John Dooley, CEO of Virginia Tech Foundation, sat down with team leaders to discuss potential investment and financing strategies for a possible build of the project. Joe Meredith, President of the VT Corporate Research Center, as well as Dawn Myers, Clay Hodges, and Jenna Stevens from VTCRC Informed the team regarding the needs for future development at the VTCRC. Finally, Frank Shushock, Senior Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, discussed a possible integration with living lab concepts that could be realized through this project.