Inspired by Hurricane Sandy, SURE House is Built for Extreme Weather

Students at Stevens Institute of Technology win first place in the U.S. Solar Decathlon for a smart home that can withstand flooding and powerful storms

3 December 2015

When Hurricane Sandy reared its ugly head in October 2012, many people were ill prepared for its aftermath. The storm, which tore through six countries in the Caribbean before hitting the East Coast of the United States and Canada, racked up an estimated US $65 billion in damages. It battered and destroyed countless buildings and caused massive blackouts, some of which lasted for weeks.

In New Jersey alone, Sandy caused almost $30 billion in damages and destroyed some 346,000 homes. The storm inspired students at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., to design an energy-efficient smart home that could withstand powerful storms and floods. The home features solar panels to provide power during a blackout, shutters that lock in place to guard against hurricane-force winds, and outdoor charging stations that neighbors can use during a power outage.

The students entered their finished project, called the SURE house—for sustainable and resilient—in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, a contest that challenges students around the world to build solar-powered homes. The Stevens team took first place at the event, which was held in October in Irvine, Calif.

The IEEE Photonics Society partnered with the SURE house team early in the design process, providing financial support and connecting the students with the IEEE community. The society also sponsored the team in the Solar Decathlon as part of its celebration of the International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies, a United Nations observance to raise awareness of how optical technologies foster sustainable development.

BRACING FOR DISASTER

The project was a multidisciplinary effort. More than 50 students and faculty members from the school’s engineering, architecture, and business departments worked together beginning in 2013 to design and build the structure from the ground up.

The SURE house is a single-level structure measuring 92 square meters. It has two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, a dining area, and a living room. It has an open wood-truss frame, but instead of plywood or vinyl siding, it is sheathed in acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), a low-cost, durable plastic building material. The ABS can protect the house if water levels reach as high as 2 meters. Thus, the SURE house is more resistant to floods than the average home.

The process could be a relief for residents who find it daunting to raise their existing homes above their town’s base flood elevation (BFE), the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency’s estimate for how high flood waters are likely to rise in a particular area. Hoboken, which sits at sea level along the Hudson River across from New York City, has a BFE of a worrisome 2 meters. More than half the city was flooded when Sandy hit on 29 October, and many of its residents needed to be evacuated from their homes.

The house’s solar panels produce a peak of about 10 kilowatts of electricity. It is equipped with a transformerless inverter, which converts DC power from the photovoltaic panels to AC power for lighting, the appliances, and other needs. During a blackout, the inverter switches the house to “resiliency mode” and begins producing 3 kW of emergency power, which could last for up to two weeks while the house is isolated from the grid. It also has an outdoor USB charging outlet for phones and other portable devices.

ENERGY INDEPENDENCE

The SURE house incorporates energy-efficiency features and smart design. It has no battery or diesel backup. Walls and doors are airtight. Unlike the fiberglass insulation found in many homes, the SURE house’s rigid foam insulation is water-resistant. The house uses about 90 percent less energy than traditional fiberglass-insulated houses.

Six photovoltaic panels on the roof provide electricity. More electricity is derived from photovoltaic cells incorporated into the storm shutters, which by themselves produce enough power to heat 70 percent of the house’s water. The shutters can be lowered and locked in place when a storm is approaching and can withstand wind speeds of more than 200 kilometers per hour.

A number of smart appliances contribute to the house’s energy savings, including a high-efficiency pump that heats, cools, and dehumidifies the space. The pump is connected to zone sensors placed throughout the house that make it possible to control the temperature in each room. The heating and air-conditioning systems can keep one or two rooms comfortable without having to heat or cool the entire house.

The students installed an energy-efficient LG ultralarge-capacity TurboWash washer and dryer. The washer is equipped with twin water sprays, which cuts the time it takes to complete its cycle in half.

EDUCATING THE PUBLIC

After being transported from Hoboken to Irvine to compete in the Solar Decathlon, the SURE house is now back in New Jersey, where it has settled in Seaside Park, on the Atlantic Ocean about 130 km south of Hoboken. The structure is serving as a community center as well as a place to educate people about solar energy and green building technologies.

Keith Sheppard, associate dean of the Schaefer School of Engineering and Science at Stevens, noted at the house’s unveiling in August that the project was a unique learning opportunity for students and the public.

“Building the SURE house has evolved students’ skills and provided rich experiences that cannot be obtained in a classroom,” Sheppard said. “And with it, we can educate the public about the role of sustainable design and engineering solutions to both energy and climate challenges for housing—especially in coastal communities.”

This article originally appeared in print as “SURE House: Built for Extreme Weather.”

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

Learn More