Building an experience

UB students reconstruct award-winning GRoW Home


UB’s GRoW (Garden, Relax or Work) Home has temporarily returned to South Campus after receiving national recognition at the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Solar Decathlon in California.

The home was one of 14 finalists in the biennial competition and took second place overall. The GRoW Home placed in the top-five in each of the competition’s 10 categories. It finished in first place in three of the contests. The house was disassembled and shipped 2,500 miles back to Buffalo after the competition. It is being temporarily housed adjacent to Hayes Hall on South Campus before its permanent move to North Campus. The date for the relocation has not yet been set.

The 1,100 square-foot efficient solar home’s 32 solar panels allows it to produce more energy than it consumes: it is a model for future sustainable living. The GRoW Home includes a “GRoWlarium” greenhouse and solarium where occupants can grow food year-round.

More than 100 students from various majors worked under the leadership of the School of Architecture and Planning along with LPCiminelli to design and build the award-winning home.

Alexandra Sheehan, a second-year graduate student of architecture, is proud to see the GRoW Home displayed on South Campus where it originated.

“Something really important about this house is that it’s made by the students and that it’s really all student labor and design,” Sheehan said. “To take it and bring it straight to North Campus so far away from the students that worked on it would really be a shame. Especially when the school of architecture is really growing and becoming a destination for people to come and tour. Having this in close proximity is something that is really important to the school of architecture.”

Students worked hands-on with heavy machinery and other tools that UB’s architecture shop doesn’t normally have access to. All student workers are required to have a 10-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration training, which allow them to use the equipment.

Architects and students aren’t normally required to have OSHA training, but it’s a bonus for the resumes of students working on the project. Sheehan thinks this is one of the many factors that sets participating UB students above other architecture students.

“We understand the safety as well as the process of building. It’s been very advantageous for students that have gotten certified and applied for jobs,” Sheehan said. “Having these hands-on experiences and knowing how to be safe on a job site is really important because it’s what we’ll be doing in the future.”

Kenneth MacKay, clinical associate professor of architecture, is overseeing the reconstruction of the building. MacKay does not know when reconstruction will be completed, but he values the experiential learning that the project offers his students.

“We’re not a construction company. We’re a graduate and undergraduate class putting this together,” MacKay said. “Our number one priority is safety – my favorite statement is that no one has been injured yet – and learning.”

The building team encountered setbacks as part of that learning experience.

At the competition, the house’s foundation was on a tarmac and didn’t have to meet any specific requirements to be a permanent structure.

The ground on South Campus isn’t the most structurally sound plot of land, according to MacKay. They had to work around this in order to ensure that the building has a structural base for public usage.

“The original project was temporarily constructed and there were many elements of it that reflected that,” MacKay said. “What we’re looking at now is something that’s a bit more permanent and it has to meet a building code for public occupancy versus residential.”

MacKay said this will involve a great deal of redesign and new construction that wasn’t a part of the original project. These challenges have offered students working on the project experiences they don't normally have until after college.

Students learned the full cycle of an architectural structure’s life through the reconstruction period. Students have knowledge of what happens after they submit their designs and construction begins from penning a design to erecting a building.

“I think this helps the students understand how difficult it is to actually construct something,” MacKay said. “Students are seeing all of the unforeseen conditions that occur in the field. My goal isn’t to make them into contractors, but to have them understand how hard it is to do construction so that they respect the people that actually do the work.”

Lauren Kennedy, a second-year master’s student of architecture, started working on the project last spring and cleared gravel for the house’s foundation.

“I was able to work when we were erecting the steel which is something that most students don’t get to do unless you work on construction sites,” Kennedy said. “To see all the different processes that go into it for safety reasons or just the logistics of how we get piece ‘A’ to location ‘B,’ in terms of the space that you have and who’s on site, is really interesting to see.”

A professional construction company will conduct the structures final move to North Campus without students. MacKay and other members of the GRoW Home team want to make sure that students get their onsite experience now before the home must move again.

Tours of the structure will educate the public about low-energy living after its reconstruction on North Campus. The home will also serve as a classroom and small event space as a university and community resource center.

Max Kalnitz is the senior features editor and can be reached at