Real Life Lessons
Architecture students put theories into practice to benefit community
Perhaps one day, all new houses will be built of energy-conserving materials like aerated blocks, insulated panels or recycled steel.
For now, though, architects, builders and energy specialists are still learning about the practicality of using such building materials. How much energy do these types of houses use, and do lower gas and electric bills offset the potentially higher cost of construction for a family with a modest income?
Students and faculty from UTSA's College of Architecture are working on answers to that puzzle, thanks to a community service project that offered students hands-on experience working with green building practices while it added to the supply of affordable rental housing in an inner city San Antonio neighborhood.
A dozen graduate students have spent the past two years working with San Antonio Alternative Housing Corp., a West Side San Antonio community agency, to erect three experimental rental houses that will answer some questions about the future role of energy-efficient building materials in affordable housing.
"It is community outreach that adds new rental housing to a redeveloping neighborhood," said Taeg Nishimoto, associate dean for research, outreach and graduate studies at the College of Architecture. "But it also includes the bigger concepts of research and creative activity."
Nishimoto's students designed three experimental houses that include energy- conserving features such as sprayed foam insulation, attic fans and solar water heaters. The exteriors are made of three different materials: autoclaved aerated concrete blocks, prefabricated insulated panels and recycled steel shipping containers.
A fourth house, designed by a professional architectural firm, is traditional wood-frame construction, but has the same energy-efficient interior features as the test houses.
"All four houses contain energy-monitoring sensors to allow UTSA students to collect data on utility usage during the next few years. San Antonio Alternative Housing, a 20-year-old nonprofit that provides affordable housing and support services for low- and moderate-income communities, owns the houses and will use them as rental units for the families it serves.The nonprofit built one traditional wood-frame house, and Radle put Nishimoto and the architecture students in charge of designing the other three with the same energy features, but using alternative exterior "skins."
The project was conceived several years ago when Nishimoto met Rod Radle, now-retired executive director of San Antonio Alternative Housing, through Mission Verde, a regional collaboration that works to test and improve eco-friendly technologies in buildings.
In 2011, Radle secured funding through the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs' Neighborhood Stabilization Program to build four rental homes. Because the nonprofit owns some lots on Guadalupe Ybarra Street where an old public housing project had been demolished in a federally supported renovation effort, Radle also had a location to build the new rentals.
Students divided into three teams, each taking one house. They designed one floor plan with three bedrooms, two bathrooms and 1,050 square feet.
The students incorporated three different exterior materials into their house designs. One was designed with autoclaved aerated concrete blocks, which are manufactured with a process that blows insulating air into the blocks. A second design used prefabricated wood and foam insulated panels. The third used three tractor-trailer-size metal shipping containers, which were cut and assembled on the site to form the exterior. Students then designed an interior wood frame for insulation, wall board and other indoor necessities.
Because the materials are not typically used in home construction, part of the learning process for students was earning approval from city authorities for the building permits, said Joel James M.Arch. '11. He started working on the designs as a UTSA student, and after graduation, he was hired by general contractor Camilo Garcia Inc. as the project manager for all four houses.
"The city inspectors are excited to see these alternative ideas for buildings, but at the same time, they are not just going to give you a permit," James said. "We had to demonstrate this was a viable idea."
Construction began in early 2012 with a budget of $68,250 for each house. Students negotiated with some suppliers for discounted and donated materials, which helped the contractor with budget restraints.
The final cost for each house was $72,500, which included items like fencing, sheds, engineering and environmental work performed for the container home, said Greg Cooper, construction manager for San Antonio Alternative Housing.
The project wrapped up in the summer months with the application of brightly hued exterior paint - red-orange, blue-gray and vibrant green.
"These are houses that fit in with the character of the neighborhood," Cloudt said. "They are happy houses."
As families move into the new houses, the second phase of the project begins. Sensors will collect data on the renters' use of energy, and over the next few years, UTSA architecture students will be able to study which of the construction types is most energy efficient. The results could help define the future of green technologies in affordable housing.
"The real success is not seeing the buildings done," Nishimoto said. "The real success of this project is how the next step unfolds from here."
For the students, the project offered the chance to test how different environmentally friendly alternatives would perform in affordable housing.
"Nishimoto wanted us to be active in the community while gaining real-world experience with architectural projects," Cloudt said. "This was a project that helped us accomplish both those goals."