General

Dirt Works solving problems in Solar Decathlon Build Challenge

Dirt Works solving problems in Solar Decathlon Build Challenge

LAWRENCE – A home designed for state-of-the-art energy efficiency, that shelters people fleeing from domestic violence, fills an inner-city “orphan lot” and simultaneously trains architecture students in construction?

That is the quadruple play that a Department of Energy award to the University of Kansas’ Dirt Works Studio will catalyze over the next year in Kansas City, Kansas.

Dirt Works Studio, run by Chad Kraus, associate professor of architecture, received word that it was one of 14 applicants winning approval to proceed and an associated $50,000 in award funding in the Build Challenge portion of the DOE’s 20th annual Solar Decathlon. A year from now, the results of their work will be judged against that of other competitors, including teams from Pennsylvania State University, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

According to the DOE, the teams will work over a two-year period to design, build and operate houses in their own communities. Student work will culminate in April 2023 with the Solar Decathlon Competition Event at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. The finished homes must “demonstrate creative solutions for real-world issues in the building industry. Teams will compete to earn points by operating their house successfully and by showcasing the excellence of their solutions to industry expert jurors.”

For Kraus, designing and building an ultra-energy-efficient house is a step up from Dirt Works’ usual outdoor pavilion or indoor renovation project.

“Since the mid-’90s, when (professor) Dan Rockhill started Studio 804, we’ve had a really strong design-build program — many would say one of the strongest in the country,” Kraus said. “So you would think we would have been engaged in this, which is probably the highest-profile design-build competition in the country.”

For various reasons, though, Kraus said, a KU team had not done so. This year felt like the right time, he said, and work began during the fall 2021.

Kraus said DirtWorks Studio has partnered with a new nonprofit organization, The Good Work, which is dedicated to serving families experiencing crisis, on the homebuilding project. The Good Work owns the vacant lot in Kansas City’s Strawberry Hill neighborhood that Dirt Works will build upon, and the organization will raise whatever additional money is needed to complete the house, with an estimated budget of $300,000. The completed home will serve as a refuge for a parent and their children fleeing abuse, Kraus said.

Other partners in the endeavor include Henderson Engineers (mechanical, electrical and plumbing), Apex Engineers (structural), BNIM (architectural consulting), BuildSmart (a maker of prefabricated walls) and Wood Haven (a lumber supplier and rainscreen manufacturer). 

“It’s a narrow lot,” Kraus said, “so it’s really difficult to build on because it was set up at a time when building codes were quite different. Now you can’t even legally build on these lots unless you have a special provision, which they’ve developed in Strawberry Hill, called their Narrow Lot Design Guidelines that allow certain deviations from the zoning codes.” Those guidelines include minimum setback distances from the street and the neighbors’ property.

This lot, though, has other issues as well, including the fact that it’s near an interstate highway. So Dirt Works is trying to turn those vices into virtues, using, for instance, the southern exposure created by the expanse of highway to invite passive solar gain for warmth inside the home. The geography also makes for a spectacular view of the Kansas City, Missouri, skyline from the new home’s master bedroom.

After some help from professionals who will pour the foundation over the summer, roughly two dozen Dirt Works students will do most of the construction work themselves during the fall and spring semesters of 2022-23. Once the building is complete, Dirt Works will operate the home for a period of weeks, measuring its energy efficiency for contest-judging purposes. The goal is for the home to be net-zero” or better — that is, to create as much or more energy with its solar-electricity-panel array and other features as it uses. The home that strikes the best balance of efficiency and elegance in solving all its design-build problems will be declared the winner.

Kraus said he is anxious to see how this most ambitious Dirt Works project turns out.

“I’m passionate about design-build education,” he said.

Image: Chad Kraus with a model of the home Dirt Works Studio will build in Kansas City, Kansas, as part of the 2023 Solar Decathlon Build Challenge. Credit: Rick Hellman, KU News Service.