Lumenhaus Transcended the Solar Decathlon

By Douglas Gordon, Hon. AIA

In the fall of 2009 on the Capital Mall, Virginia Tech’s Lumenhaus—inspired by Mies’s 1951 Farnsworth House—may have placed third in the design category, but it took a rather disappointing 13th place overall out of 20 entries; disappointing, that is, if that had been the culmination of its existence. Instead, however, it was only the beginning of a trajectory that included taking first place in the European Solar Decathlon in Madrid the following year, and receiving a VSAIA Architecture Honor Award in 2011 and a national Institute Honor Award for Architecture this year.

The Lumenhaus and its “wetland.” Photos by Jim Stroup.

And that’s not all. This remarkably beautiful and comfortable house that sits tiny but lives large has a secret super power that has taken it from Times Square in New York City and Millennium Park in Chicago to Plato, Ill., where the Virginia Tech team displayed the house in May 2011 alongside the house that inspired them in the first place. It has an integrated transport system. First conceived by the 2005 Virginiaa Tech Solar Decathlon team, a removable rear wheel assembly and goose-neck trailer attachment enable the team to haul the house tractor-trailer fashion as a unit, allowing quick set-up and more time for fine-tuning the house for its new location and displaying it to the public.

Currently, Lumenhaus is back on the Virginia Tech campus being prepared for extensive building-performance testing at the College of Architecture and Urban Studies (CAUS) Research and Demonstration Facility. The university continues its outreach efforts, including a legacy of YouTube presentations posted over the years.

Integrated technology

The Lumenhaus is a perfectly viable living space. It gathers light both as an amenity and as a power source. It monitors the outside weather conditions so that the automated screening system can open or close for optimum ventilation, screening, and security. And the walls can be opened and interior partitions and furnishings reconfigured to extend the interior outward or adapt to interior-use needs. Beyond a dwelling, though, the house serves as an educational exhibition informing the public about issues of alternative energy and sustainability. The wetland exhibit on the exterior adjacent to the bathroom inside, for instance, is not of a functional scale but does demonstrate the positive aesthetic potential of using artificial wetlands for water retention and purification.

The solar-power generation for this house is intended to be tied to an electric grid. It monitors its own performance and, through a portable telecommunications device, allows the owners to control systems remotely in what the team terms “responsive architecture.”

Lumenhaus is a net-positive-energy house in that, through active and passive systems, it generates more power than it uses over the course of a year through solar gain and artful energy, water, thermal, and lighting management.

The house glows at night.

The Eclipsis System that encloses the house and is an important element of its energy-management system consists of two exterior layers—laser-cut, operable stainless steel screens and aerogel-filled polycarbonate insulation panels. Natural light of varying character throughout the day fills the house from sunrise to sunset, and sliding panel systems automatically respond to climactic conditions from summer heat to winter cold. At night, a soft glow emanates from the panels, giving the house an ethereal aesthetic.

The view from the faculty

“After a series of different venues for this house, ranging everywhere from Time Square to Millennium Park, it’s now back home, and you couldn’t ask for a better laboratory,” says CAUS Associate Dean for Research Robert P. Shubert, who views the professional-level awards as a particularly potent commentary on the work of both students and faculty in accomplishing the three goals of a land-grant university: outreach, teaching, and discovery . “I think the VSAIA and AIA recognized us for the fact that we’ve put it into the public view, so it became very much an outreach component.”

“It also proves the profession really does value and honor what we are trying to do,” agrees CAUS Instructor David “Chip” Clark.

The interior is comfortable and spacious.

“The Lumenhaus is not just a house, it is the house of the future,” interjects Joseph Wheeler, AIA. “And it’s not a house that is just full of technology, it’s a house that’s designed to incorporate these technologies. One of the advantages we have over most in the professions is that we have access to a great body of knowledge within the university.”

“No discipline can act within itself anymore,” continues CAUS Center for Design Research Director Robert Dunay, AIA. “The boundaries between disciplines are being blurred more and more every day. So it’s very critical to get teams of students from different disciplines so they can constructively challenge and have dialogue with other members of the team. We have a long and healthy research agenda here for the next 10 years. ”

At the same time the house provides a different way of looking at architect and at where the technology can be seamlessly part of the actual use in the day-to-day activities. “Probably the best aspect of the Lumenhaus” Dunay says, “is the lesson of how to live in a much smaller space without compromising the quality of life; in fact, even enhancing the quality of life in these spaces.”

“The project worked out extremely well,” Dunay concludes. “Students got a tremendous experience in terms of understanding how something can work. And everyone benefits because so many students and faculty are learning together on this. That’s what makes it such a vital project.”

The Lumenhaus on Times Square. Photo by Jim Stroup.


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