How 30 Students Built a Home That Can Withstand a Natural Disaster

The project manager of the award-winning SURE house sheds light on the two-year process

3 December 2015

Our December issue delves into the work of several engineers who are working on smart homes that are automated and energy-efficient. A team of students from Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., took this concept a step further by designing the SURE house, a structure that is not only solar-powered, but can also withstand powerful storms and flooding. They were inspired by the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, which tore through the United States’ East Coast in 2012. The IEEE Photonics Society partnered with SURE House early on in the design process, providing finanical support and connecting students with the IEEE community.

The team’s hard work paid off in October when the SURE house won first prize in the U.S. Solar Decathlon, a contest that challenges students around the world to build solar-powered homes. 

The Institute recently caught up with Ed May, the team’s project manager. May is president of Mayplewood Consulting, a firm that specializes in project management, in Maplewood, N.J. He explains that the biggest challenge the students faced had nothing to do with engineering, and his hopes for their future.

You only had two years to get the SURE house ready for competition day. How did your team get everything accomplished in that short amount of time?

We essentially had to start a design and construction firm from scratch. Before building the house, the students had to establish and implement a number of things, including communication methods and file sharing, billing, inventory, purchasing and storing materials, and sticking to a budget. They also had to learn about construction techniques and how to safely use the tools. Basically, the team had to create a functioning business while designing and building an energy-efficient home. 

With such a short timeframe, the team needed to move quickly to solve one problem after another, often wearing many hats in the course of a single day. The most important thing to develop during this type of project is good communication skills—they needed to be able to explain their ideas verbally and through written reports as well as sketching out their ideas.

What were some of the biggest challenges?

Bringing all the students up to a level where they could communicate their ideas clearly among a large group was the single biggest challenge for the faculty advisors. Students came into the program with widely different backgrounds and skill sets, and all of them had to learn to collaborate and think through their designs together.

In addition, getting all the students familiar with green building techniques, principles, and concepts was important. We insisted that everyone on the team, no matter what their backgrounds or what they were studying, should be able to understand the workings of the entire building and how it performs. A lot of time was spent on teaching them the core principles of heat transfer, energy monitoring, and the other central concepts of low-power building design. 

How do you think building the SURE house will impact students’ careers?

I hope this project inspires many of them to work on critical challenges like climate change and responsible energy consumption, whether it’s with green building design, renewable energy technologies, or some other aspect. Even if they go on to work in another field unrelated to building design or energy, I hope our message of responsible energy use carries over into whatever career they pursue. I also hope the fundamental skills they learned—teamwork, communication skills, problem solving, and resiliency in the face of setbacks—will help them succeed no matter where they land as professionals. 

This article is part of our December 2015 special report on smart homes.

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