Plastics Help House Win at Solar Decathlon

Beach shore

Previously published in Plastics Engineering and posted with permission from the Society of Plastics Engineers.

What does “a house that would intellectually respond to Hurricane Sandy” look like?

As the students at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, see it, it starts with two concepts: sustainability and resilience. And it uses a whole lot of plastics, particularly vinyl.

“Inspired” by Hurricane Sandy, a team of Stevens students designed and created a home for the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Solar Decathlon in Irvine, CA. Held every two years, the “Solar Decathlon challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are affordable, energy-efficient, and attractive,” says DOE.

The Stevens team conceived the house as the “coastal home of the future,” a cost-effective, net-zero energy, solar powered home to serve as a prototype for shore communities. The house’s focus on sustainability is manifest by dramatically reduced energy consumption and its use of solar energy. It also uses marine construction methods to protect against the next 100-year storm, making it particularly resilient. Combine SUstainable + REsilient and you get the SURE HOUSE, the name for Stevens’ Solar Decathlon entry.

Seventeen teams from across the nation competed in the 2015 Decathlon (including some that partnered with foreign universities), each of which spent nearly two years on design and buildout. The houses are scored on ten criteria related to affordability, appeal, appliances, architecture, comfort, communications, commuting, energy balance, engineering, and home life.

SURE House

SURE House reduces energy use by whopping 90 percent compared to average New Jersey home.

One of the loudest cheerleaders for the Stevens team is the Vinyl Institute, a member of the plastics division of the American Chemistry Council. The Vinyl Institute is one of the sponsors of the SURE HOUSE. “The design was about sustainability and resilience,” said Susan Wade, VP of Marketing and Communications for the Vinyl Institute. “With the house being a coastal home, vinyl really played a key role. It was an opportunity to show how important vinyl is to those design goals.”

So how did the SURE HOUSE fair when winners of this tough competition were announced in October (if you don’t already know)? Let’s just say they SURE did well, capturing top honors and winning in seven of the ten categories.

Truly an example of “plastics make it possible,” the SURE homes employs numerous plastic building products that contribute to energy efficiency, and it takes advantage of the inherent waterproof/resistant nature of many plastics, especially vinyl products. The Stevens team chose these materials in contrast to other materials used to build New Jersey shore homes that typically did not withstand the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. Here’s a look at some these advanced materials and products:

  • The SURE home reduces energy use by a whopping 90 percent compared to the average New Jersey home, driven in part by insulation that reduces the exchange of air from the conditioned indoor spaces to the outdoors. The SURE HOUSE has nearly twice the level of insulation of a typical home. The house employs structural insulated panels (SIPS) as walls—SIPs typically consist of polystyrene foam insulation sandwiched between some type of wood sheathing. The roofing employs extruded polystyrene foam insulation covered by a vinyl membrane to increase energy efficiency and protect the house against rough weather. These plastic materials help optimize R-values and don’t absorb water or degrade when in contact with water.
  • To help withstand hurricanes, the house employs various plastic composites and structural adhesives, derived from marine construction techniques, to create barriers to repel water. For example, the exterior siding is comprised of a glass fiber and resin matrix that encapsulates a plastic foam core. This sheathing is wrapped from the underside of the home and is rated to withstand up to a FEMA 6/7 Zone: +/- 6 feet of water. It contributes to energy efficiency and can minimize damages to allow for faster recovery from flooding and storms.

    2015 Solar Decathlon VI Plastic BOAT HULL STorm Surge Shutters

    Bi-fold storm shutters provide shade when raised and a defensive barrier when closed during storms.

  • The bi-fold storm shutters installed on the SURE HOUSE serve two purposes—they shade the windows when raised, contributing to energy efficiency in warm weather, and they provide a primary defensive barrier against water and debris when closed during inclement weather. The shutters are made with a plastic composite foam core and wrapped with a glass fiber-reinforced plastic composite. When closed, the shutters lock into place against synthetic rubber (plastic) seals to resist water intrusion from a storm surge.
  • To provide energy, the SURE HOUSE employs building-integrated photovoltaic (BIPV), in this case flexible thin-film solar cells that eliminate typical heavy glass layers and instead use slim layers of plastics. The lightweight panels attached to the upper side of the bi-fold storm shutters gather the sun’s energy when raised. Their lightweight makes it easier for the homeowner to raise and lower the shutters. The plastic panels are much more impact resistant than glass and are designed to stand up to storms, as well as be simpler to replace in case of damage.
  • To prevent permanent damage to water pervious floors, one of primary flooring products used is water resistant vinyl tile, which in this case is made with recycled materials. The exterior decking material also is made with vinyl to stand up to inclement weather without rotting or corroding.
  • There are numerous other vinyl building products in the SURE HOUSE that can contribute to sustainability and resiliency, such as the vinyl louvers that shade the windows, vinyl conduit protecting the electrical wiring, and vinyl plumping pipes. Even the windows contribute to sustainability and resilience—the durable vinyl frames contain plastic foam insulation and numerous air pockets that help prevent thermal bridging, the transfer of heat through materials.
Vinyl louvers, conduit, piping, windows and more contribute to sustainability and resilience.

Vinyl louvers, conduit, piping, windows and more contribute to sustainability and resilience.

The Sure HOUSE will reside on Ocean Avenue in the heart of Seaside Park, serving as a permanent community outreach center and information resource designed to engender continued dialogue about sustainability and resiliency.

Congratulations to the Stevens Institute of Technology. And thank you to the Vinyl Institute for sponsoring this home and helping demonstrate once again how plastics can contribute to sustainability and resilience.

For more information on plastics, building materials, and sustainability, visit plasticsmakeitposible.com. For information on the SURE HOUSE, visit surehouse.org. For information on the Solar Decathlon, visit www.solardecathlon.gov.