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Syracuse-ESF team places in top 4 of DOE Solar Decathlon Design Challenge

By Eric Reinhardt


Artist’s rendering of Our Home at Smokey Hollow. (RENDERING CREDIT: SYRACUSE UNIVERSITY)

SYRACUSE — A team of students from Syracuse University and the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) earned an honorable mention in the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Decathlon Design Challenge.

It’s a collegiate competition that has student teams designing and building “highly efficient and innovative” structures powered by renewable energy.

A total of 45 finalist teams from 31 colleges and universities competed virtually between April 17 and 19 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Students submitted their projects and presentations online while a jury of industry leaders conducted question-and-answer sessions through virtual conferencing, Syracuse University said in a May 18 news release.

The combined Syracuse/ESF Syracuse Energy Efficient Design (SEED) team was selected as one of the top four out of 18 teams in the mixed-use, multifamily division and awarded an honorable mention for its project, Our Home at Smokey Hollow.

Project details

For this year’s project, the two-school team of 20 undergraduates and graduate students partnered with Christopher Community, Inc. to create a mixed-use, assisted-living facility for young adults with mild to severe autism.

Christopher Community Inc. is a Syracuse–based nonprofit organization that specializes in developing and operating affordable housing for low- and moderate-income individuals and families.

Located in Baldwinsville, the 11-unit  structure was designed to provide all associated care and therapy services under the same roof. It includes living space for permanent support staff and is complaint with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), Syracuse said. 

Estimated to cost $6.2 million, the parents of prospective residents will privately finance the project through a combination of internal support, mortgages, housing grants, and donations from local businesses.

In order to meet deadlines, team members implemented an integrated-design approach by dividing into five sub-teams based on their studies and competition guidelines — architecture, energy, engineering, finance, and operations.

Students came from seven different majors, including architecture, construction management, environmental and mechanical engineering, and landscape architecture.

“The multi-disciplinary team enabled interaction among various disciplines and the knowledge gained from that is unparalleled,” said Vedyun Mishra, architectural team lead who is set to graduate in 2021.

With a large team size, the sub-team leads also decided it was important to have “consistent input and guidance” from knowledgeable faculty, so they enlisted the help of advisors. Nina Sharifi and Daekwon Park, assistant professors in the School of Architecture, and Paul Crovella, sustainable construction management instructor at SUNY-ESF, mentored the team, Syracuse University said.

The team on May 3 presented its final report to the parents and the developer, Mishra said in an email message that Syracuse University forwarded to CNYBJ. The design and concepts will form the basis and framework for planning documents that Christopher Community Inc.’s design team will develop before construction begins in 2022.

Design process

From the start of the process, the effort to design Our Home at Smokey Hollow centered around the question, “How Can We Make A Home?” Syracuse University said. The team researched the design for its project by first exploring how to create a healthy living environment for young adults on the autism spectrum. They referenced various case studies pertaining to buildings designed for people on the spectrum, met with parents to talk about what they felt would help their children transition into a new living space, and spoke to future residents to gain insight into their lifestyles.

Although the autism spectrum is “broad,” the design team was able to reach some general conclusions towards designing a comfortable living environment fit to support the residents, and decided on six main design impacts — net-zero, health and well-being, biophilic design, durability, efficiency, and sensory safe — that met all the specific requirements of the client and the intended occupants.

The team made efforts throughout the design process to move away from typical care-facility aesthetics and construct a more “inviting” place to live. By incorporating durable materials, both inside and out, they were able to create spaces that were “functional and attractive.” 

Through the use of clerestory windows and a Trombe wall, the design also ensured that there was ample diffused daylight and passive heat during the winters. The team also focused on minimizing sensory overload — a major consideration in addressing ASD — by reducing visual stresses, decreasing background noises, and maintaining predictability throughout the building. And to give the space a more homelike feel, the team added a few unique design elements including a sensory room, where residents can retreat and engage in different activities outside their daily routine, and a greenhouse, which will allow residents to engage in horticultural therapy all year long.

With more than 144,000 people with autism spectrum disorder in New York state, and only a handful of assisted living communities, the team’s project is a “model that can be replicated throughout the Northeast and benefit people far beyond Baldwinsville,” Syracuse said.