October 1, 2023

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Your Dream House

Boston energy-efficient housing powered by Northeastern students

Boston energy-efficient housing powered by Northeastern students

A collegiate Solar Decathlon Build Challenge team has never built a multi-unit, energy-efficient structure in a large city. 

Northeastern University could be the first.

The team is working with a local developer, Urbanica, on a $10.6 million project to design and build 18 units of net-zero housing on two Highland Park neighborhood properties near the Boston campus. The area is also known as Fort Hill. 

Northeastern students played an active role in the design of the energy-efficient, affordable housing project, according to Ted Walinskas, Northeastern Solar Decathlon team president and project lead. The plans were submitted to the city of Boston in response to a request for proposals for the two city-owned properties.

The students helped design structures with sustainable features, run energy models, formulate an LEED development plan, and integrate an energy-saving home automation system. The housing features roof lines that maximized solar gains, photovoltaic panels and solar thermal panels, high-performing insulated walls, clapboard cladding, and triple-insulated windows and doors. The team created site massings—3D models of buildings—and estimated LEED credit scores to meet energy performance goals, says Walinskas, a third-year student.

Northeastern engineering students Ted Walinskas and Aasav Harania go over plans they made as part of the Solar Decathlon team in the Smart Cities- ABLE lab. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Five subgroups make up the Northeastern solar decathlon team: architecture; structural systems; mechanical, electrical and plumbing, and energy systems; landscape; and home automation. The subgroups, Walinskas says, contributed to the design plans and submitted RFP.

The project is called Eco Homes at Highland Park and includes parcels on Highland and Marcella streets. Urbanica, along with the Northeastern Solar Decathlon team, submitted a proposal to the city of Boston in May and is set to begin the city review process.  

The team wanted to do more than the Solar Decathlon Build Challenge required, which is to design and build a functional, energy-efficient housing unit. Aiming to make an impact in the local community, team members sought to tackle not only net-zero energy efficiency but also affordable housing. So they went looking for a partner and quickly found one in Urbanica, a developer in Roxbury that has done several energy-efficient, affordable housing projects in the city, including some in the Fort Hill neighborhood. 

“Urbanica said they’d be happy to work with us on the project. They do a lot of developments around the city, they do a lot within Highland Park,” Walinskas says. “They really liked the idea of having students work with them on the project, especially as a community element, because we have another community partner, the Highland Park Land Trust, so having this kind of three-way connection with the developer, a community organization and a group of students from a nearby university is sort of a good triangle.” 

Solar Decathlon academic adviser Michael Kane, Northeastern assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, says the team was “really motivated” not only to build an energy efficient house, but multiple units that were affordable. However, that is difficult in a city the size of Boston, he says, so they had to connect with a developer that was willing to work with them.

Northeastern engineering students Ted Walinskas and Aasav Harania go over plans they made as part of the Solar Decathlon team in the Smart Cities- ABLE lab. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“This time they did something huge,” Kane says. “It’s an excellent opportunity for the students to work with a developer and build their skills.”

Michael Young, technical project manager for National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. Department of Energy, which runs the Solar Decathlon Build Challenge, agreed.

“Northeastern is pursuing a really aggressive project. They want to solve a problem they see in the area. I think that’s a really admirable goal for this team,” Young says.

Young says most of the projects in the competition are single-family units, one is a duplex but the submission only includes one side of the building. 

“In that aspect, the project really does stand out to me. I’m excited to see the project get done,” Young says.