Biophysicist creates award-winning sustainable housing

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2016/03/07/biophysicist-creates-award-winning-sustainable-housing/

Until recently, biophysicist Derek Stein’s research focused on nanostructures and biological molecules, the fundamental building blocks of life. But a few years ago, Stein decided to turn his building skills toward something more concrete – literally. The result was the environmentally-friendly “Techstyle Haus,” an award-winning joint project between Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and the Erfurt University of Technology in Germany.

Derek Stein (green hard hat) and his team prepare construction materials. (Kristen Pelou/Techstyle Haus)

Derek Stein (green hard hat) and his team prepare construction materials. (Kristen Pelou/Techstyle Haus)

After obtaining his Ph.D. in applied physics from Harvard, Stein joined the faculty at Brown University in 2006. He has received numerous awards, as well as substantial grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. One of Stein’s foci is making nanofluidic devices – the tiny channels, reservoirs, and other structures on a silicon chip – and using them to study how fluids and biomolecules behave at the nanometer scale. The goals are twofold: On one hand, the aim is scientific, because it involves discovering new phenomena. On the other, it is technological, since the objective is to develop new and better ways to sequence DNA and proteins, and detect important biological markers – all of which could revolutionize medical diagnosis. The intersecting goals and methodologies of Stein’s research have a cross-pollinating effect.

So when a team of students approached Stein in 2014 to co-direct the Techstyle Haus project, he already had plenty of experience exploring new scientific and technological frontiers. Only this time, the unchartered territory was sustainable housing instead of nanotechnology.

“We wanted to show that new materials could be used to make buildings that are efficient and beautiful.”

Stein and the group’s co-director, RISD architect Jonathan Knowles, submitted their plans to the Solar Decathlon Europe, a prestigious biennial competition sponsored by the Department of Energy, which was held that year in Versailles, France. In the contest, teams of students compete to design, build, and operate a full-scale house that is completely solar-powered. The group from Brown, RISD, and Erfurt University was one of only 20 from around the world selected to compete.

“We called our project ‘Techstyle Haus,’” Stein said. “It’s a play on words and a reference to the fact that we made the walls and roof of our house out of high performance textiles, rather than conventional construction materials like wood or plastic siding. The skin of the Techstyle Haus was a woven fiberglass membrane coated with Teflon – which makes it waterproof – and titanium dioxide particles – which give the skin a ‘self-cleaning’ capability.”

Co-directors Derek Stein and Jonathan Knowles on site. (Frank Mullin/Brown University)

Co-directors Jonathan Knowles and Derek Stein on site. (Frank Mullin/Brown University)

Stein added that even the interior walls of the house were made of textiles that could be unzipped and thrown into a washing machine. “We wanted to show that new materials could be used to make buildings that are efficient and beautiful,” he noted. The structure was also designed to meet the Passive House standard, the strictest gauge for thermal efficiency. As a result, the Techstyle Haus uses 65 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a standard home.

The fully self-sustaining house produces an impressive 50 percent more energy than it consumes. Its photovoltaic system and architectural curvature are designed for optimal solar energy usage. The home’s open floor plan is supported by five structural steel ribs, which in turn hold multiple layers of high-performance textiles and insulation. These innovative strata are fire-resistant and protect the dwelling from high winds and variable weather.

“It was also an extremely comfortable house,” Stein elaborated, “as it effortlessly maintained the ideal temperature, a comfortable relative humidity, low CO2 levels, and quiet.”

Stein, Brown University president Christina Paxon, and the team discuss the project. (Kristen Pelou/Techstyle Haus)

Stein, Brown University president Christina Paxon, and the team discuss the project. (Kristen Pelou/Techstyle Haus)

After the competition, Stein and his team donated the house to the design and architecture conference center, Domaine Des Boisbuchet, which is located in Lessac, France. It continues to be used today by students and artists-in-residence, confirming the long-term sustainability of its design and construction.

In addition to the lauds it received at the Solar Decathlon competition, the Techstyle Haus was recently honored as one of nine finalists out of 1,500 entries by Fast Company magazine. Stein and his team were thrilled by this latest recognition, which they had nearly forgotten about after Knowles entered the house in the contest last year.

Stein’s innovative approach to the project demonstrated how the scientific and technological methodology of the micro world of nanotechnology could be adapted to the macro world of sustainable housing.  He simply applied what he had learned from the building blocks of life to the building blocks of Techstyle Haus.

“The Techstyle Haus project got me thinking about how we might improve the materials and techniques for building houses. Because of my background in biophysics, I tend to look to nature for inspiration.”

Drawing inspiration from nature, this resourceful biophysicist foresees even greater advances for environmentally-friendly construction in the future:

“The Techstyle Haus project got me thinking about how we might improve the materials and techniques for building houses. Because of my background in biophysics, I tend to look to nature for inspiration. I am amazed by how well a plant is able to regulate its temperature and moisture content. They open or close tiny pores in the leaves depending on the conditions outside. I think there are ways that we can engineer smarter building materials so that a house could mimic a plant’s strategy and become more energy efficient and comfortable.”

Given Stein’s past success, his research is sure to be at the forefront of this fascinating renaissance in building design.

Interior of the finished house. (Kristen Pelou/Techstyle Haus)

Interior of the finished house. (Kristen Pelou/Techstyle Haus)

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected].

NBPUrban

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