Students Upgrade 1933-Inspired Housing Development with Energy Efficient Design

Originally published by: Residential Building MagazineSeptember 21, 2014

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A group of students and faculty members from the University of Tennessee has reinterpreted an 80-year-old regional housing model and updated it with smart design, sustainable materials and high-performance construction.

“The home is inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority homes [from 1933] but it looks to the future,” said Tricia A. Stuth, AIA, a professor of architecture at the University of Tennessee College of Architecture + Design and a faculty adviser on the project.

The home in question, A New Norris House, was designed and built by student and faculty members from a variety of disciplines at the university and is located in Norris, Tennessee – a community constructed in 1933 by the Tennessee Valley Authority as part of the Norris Dam construction project. A key component of the village was the Norris House, a series of homes built for modern, efficient living.

“Original designs integrated new technologies – municipal electricity and water systems – and incorporated new materials and building techniques,” the university wrote in its project statement. “Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Norris is among the first planned communities in the US. The Plan of Norris provided a series of design lessons – compact houses connected by footpaths and roads to schools, services, and a central common.”

A New Norris House builds on the regional themes of the original cottages but updates them with traditional and innovative high-performance techniques. The team sited the home for solar gain, cross ventilation, and included rainwater harvesting and graywater recycling. “A dormer shutter induces stack ventilation and a solar hot water panel is concealed on its roof,” the university said. A tankless electric heater boosts stored hot water as needed.

Located on a .30-acre infill lot, New Norris’ interior space measures a relatively small 768 sq. ft. “It has 1,008 sq. ft. when you include the loft, but the loft has a steep ladder so it would need a staircase,” Stuth said. Rightsizing the house reduced material and operational loads and costs, and shifted funds to quality design and construction, passive strategies and high-efficiency systems, the university explained.

The construction of the house was part of that efficiency strategy. Instead of framing on site, the team partnered with modular builder Clayton Homes in Maryville, Tenn. Collaborating with the builder, the students worked within the limitations of modular technology— transportation, customization — and came up with a system that arrived it two modules.

Framed with 6-in. studs, the building envelope is “robust,” featuring R-30 walls stuffed with batt insulation and covered with 1-in. exterior foam board; R-42 roof (also is covered with foam board) and a R-24 crawl space. The students fabricated the doors in the university’s wood shop.

The team didn’t only emulate the original cottages in size, it also used a regional approach to products and materials, said Bob French, an architecture professor at the school and another faculty adviser. “Some of the older homes had gable roofs, so we decided to give our house the same roof,” he said. And the team selected local materials and products, and chose items that were non-toxic and sustainable. They clad the exterior in Atlantic white cedar, said French, and a standing seam metal roof. The interior flooring was recycled from an old barn in Kentucky.

Because a major focus of the house was sustainability, the home features a variety of water-saving strategies such as a 100% native, water-wise landscape and low-flow fixtures. “Further reductions are accomplished through the design and installation of a rainwater collection system, as well as a series of greywater infiltration beds,” the project documents state.

Moreover, the site is 99% permeable and collected roof water is treated for non-potable use. A primary cistern overflows to a second cistern for garden irrigation, which overflows to bio-retention beds.

So far, the home and landscape have performed as modeled, but the team has been evaluating all systems for the past two years. At the conclusion of the evaluation, the university plans to sell the house at auction.