Architecture Students Place First in Department of Energy Competition

A team of UArizona architecture students won first place in a worldwide competition for designing The Loop, a cooperative housing apartment building whose energy system reimagines the way groups of buildings are kept cool.

A team of UArizona architecture students won first place in a worldwide competition for designing The Loop, a cooperative housing apartment building whose energy system reimagines the way groups of buildings are kept cool.

(Illustration courtesy of SunBlock)

University of Arizona architecture students won first place in a national competition for a project that reimagines the way buildings store energy for cooling.

The team was among four finalists from the university in the Department of Energy's 2020 Solar Decathlon Design Challenge. Another one of the teams earned an honorable mention.

Their competitors included student teams from 36 higher education institutions from around the world, all tasked with designing projects that solve real-world problems in the building industry. The winning team of fourth-year undergraduate architecture students had just three members – Elizabeth Franzen, Rachel Schultz and Hao Wang – compared to the teams they competed against, which often had up to two dozen students per team, plus multiple faculty advisers.

The teams presented their designs to expert jurors.

"Being able to be recognized for your passion and having people tell you that what you're doing is really important was inspiring," Franzen said. "It makes you feel like you're ready to step into the world and make a big difference."

Rethinking how buildings are cooled

Jonathan Bean

Jonathan Bean

The four UArizona teams each designed one component of a larger project called SunBlock, a concept for a section of the Myers Neighborhood on the south end of midtown Tucson. SunBlock rethinks the traditional configuration of district energy systems, which are used to heat or cool collections of buildings, said Jonathan Bean, an assistant professor of architecture and sustainable built environments and the team's faculty adviser.

District energy systems typically involve one central plant that creates heated or cooled water, then pumps it around to the other buildings within the district. The buildings take that water and pass it through an air handling unit. Air is then passed over the water to heat or cool the building.

The SunBlock concept, designed specifically for the Sonoran Desert, focuses on cooling. The main way it is different from a traditional district energy system is that each SunBlock building would have its own solar-powered system that cools the water, rather than one central building doing it all.

Because the buildings are built so efficiently, the cooling system would provide more cold water than needed. The extra water could be stored in underground tanks and shared with existing and less efficient buildings throughout the neighborhood.

The project addresses sustainability from a number of angles: The buildings' electricity is provided with solar power; the system does not use traditional air conditioning systems that use refrigerants, which are polluters; and the underground water tanks can also collect rainwater for irrigation.

'We want to win'

Though Bean provided the idea to get the project started, it grew out of the students' ambition, he said – even after he explained how difficult it might be to win. Many universities whose teams place highly at the Solar Decathlon have courses that prepare students for the competition.

"I happened to have a very ambitious group of students that said, 'Well, we want to win,'" Bean said. He told them their best shot would be to come up with a "really audacious idea."

That idea, the students decided, would be four separate projects, each led by different teams, that incorporate the SunBlock concept. The projects were entered into different divisions of the competition to increase the students' chances of winning.

The entries were:

  • An apartment complex for low-income, cooperative housing that includes retail and shared-use space. This project, called The Loop, won the first-place award in the mixed-use multifamily division.
  • A renovation for Myers Ganoung Elementary School that improves the building's performance, comfort and air quality, and also integrates the school's current efficient cooling system with the SunBlock system. This project won an honorable mention in the elementary school division.
  • A two-bedroom home called Casa Donante, a finalist in the urban single-family division.
  • Medium-size homes or guest houses that can be built in most backyards in Tucson, a finalist in the attached housing division.

The students started from scratch in January to meet the March deadline, working through setbacks brought on by COVID-19. They presented their work to the judges virtually.

Tucson Electric Power supported the competition with $5,000 and provided feedback on the design.

Beyond sustainability

Though sustainability and building efficiently are at the core of SunBlock, so is social equity. The Loop apartment building, for example, is intended to be a co-op whose residents receive shares when they move in. The corporation that owns the building would be run by a board whose members are elected by residents.

Bean said it was the students who drove the ideas that aimed to solve social equity issues. Addressing problems such as access to affordable housing is a passion for Franzen and her teammates, she said, adding that architects have a unique ability to find those solutions.

"We believe that everyone deserves a home – everyone has a right to be in a healthy, safe environment," she said. "We think that's a human right, and we're more than willing to promote that idea."

Bean plans to bring SunBlock back in the next academic year as a studio, where students will further design the project and bring it closer to reality. He also plans to partner with more industry and community organizations to find ways to build a prototype of the project – something he hopes will help people clearly see SunBlock's potential to change the way homes are conditioned.

Elizabeth Franzen

Elizabeth Franzen

Franzen said she plans to serve as a mentor to future groups of students who move SunBlock forward. She's as optimistic as Bean that SunBlock will someday be more than a first-place project.

"It definitely has the merit of becoming something much more real," she said. "We just have to get more people on board."

Students shine in another national competition

Another team, led by Master of Landscape Architecture students, recently earned another award in a different design competition run by a federal agency.

The team, which also included students in the College of Science, the College of Engineering and the Graduate College, placed second in the Campus RainWorks Challenge's master plan category. The national competition, run by the Environmental Protection Agency, asked students to design solutions to rainwater issues on their campuses.

The team's project, called Against the Grain, aims to address the "temporary rivers" of rainwater that collect on campus during summer monsoon storms. The plan envisions three bicycle and pedestrian corridors, running north and south across campus, that would divert rainwater into basins.

The team and their adviser, Bo Yang, an associate professor in the School of Landscape Architecture and Planning, hope the project or some of its components become a part of the university's master plan.