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The smart, quirky trappings of a contemporary solar house

Posted October 1, 2015

If you’re building a zero-energy solar home, shouldn’t the furnishings be ultra-efficient, too?

That was the thinking of University at Buffalo students and faculty, who crafted six clever pieces of furniture to enhance the efficiency of the GRoW Home, a solar house they’re building for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition, which begins on Oct. 8 in Irvine, California.

The contest asks teams to design and construct solar-powered dwellings. It doesn’t require entrants to build their own furniture, but the UB participants wanted their entry to stand out.

“We thought it would be really interesting if we built some unique furniture that had the potential to improve the overall performance of the house,” said Nicholas Rajkovich, an assistant professor of architecture in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning.

So this spring, he led 17 students in a graduate seminar that designed six pieces, including a solar clothes dryer that doubles as a bench, and a cabinet with curved slots for storing mason jars — a key tool for eco-minded city dwellers who pickle and can food.

The furniture arrived in California on Sept. 28 after being shipped from the Buffalo area to the West Coast aboard a 53-foot-long enclosed tractor trailer.

Each piece furthers the mission of the GRoW Home, which addresses sustainability not only through solar panels and energy savings, but also through a glass-enclosed greenhouse where urban gardeners can grow vegetables year-round.

Because the house is small — 1,100 square feet — the UB furniture designers focused on creating multifunctional items, like the solar dryer bench.

“There isn’t a lot of space, so having items that could serve multiple functions was critical,” Rajkovich said.

His class came up with concepts, created sketches and models, and built the furniture with help and donations from industrial partners including Rigidized Metals Corporation, a Buffalo, New York, company that manufactures textured steel components.

The GRoW Home furniture collection:

Image credit: Douglas Levere

Image credit: Douglas Levere


This 3-foot-tall cabinet is aesthetically pleasing yet perfectly practical.

It complements the GRoW Home’s urban gardening mission: The console’s textured metal lid, fabricated by Rigidized Metals Corporation, flips open to reveal a compartment for storing a pressure canner.

In addition, four wooden shelves feature indentations — milled by a computer-controlled router — for holding mason jars.

It’s a great set-up for pickling vegetables grown on-site in the dwelling’s greenhouse.


Image credit: Douglas Levere

Image credit: Douglas Levere

These two 6-foot-long tables have a double personality.

Each has a textured metal kitchen working surface manufactured by Rigidized Metals Corporation. But flip this surface over, and you get a handsome wood top that’s fit for a dinner party.

The tabletops rotate along a central axis and lock into place, enabling homeowners to easily access either side. Designers’ tip: You can push the two tables together to create an even larger dining surface.

Image credit: Douglas Levere

Image credit: Douglas Levere


Laid on its side, this 6-foot-long contraption serves as a comfortable bench.

But lift it into a vertical position, and it transforms into a solar clothing dryer that addresses one of the Solar Decathlon’s odder challenges: washing and drying six towels using as little energy as possible.

“The dryer works by pulling cool air in through a grate at the bottom and venting hot air out through a grate at the top,” says Nicholas Rajkovich, the UB faculty member who guided the student design team. “To heat the whole thing up, we have the entire interior painted black.”


Image credit: Douglas Levere

Image credit: Douglas Levere

At 8 feet tall, this shelf will stand between the GRoW Home’s bedroom and dining area, creating an informal boundary between those two spaces.

The storage unit’s largest compartment will hold a TV atop a turntable, enabling one television to serve both rooms.


Image credit: Douglas Levere

Image credit: Douglas Levere

These wooden nesting boxes are simple, but they fulfill many different needs.

Rajkovich’s team built a pair of these multifunctional pieces. They can serve as end tables, but can also be pulled apart and used as stools or storage cubes, or combined to form a coffee table. Within the boxes, wire baskets donated by Three M Tool based in York, Pennsylvania, provide storage space for magazines, books or other supplies.

Image credit: Douglas Levere

Image credit: Douglas Levere



This 6-foot-long rolling table will hold soil and seedlings.

So what makes it special? Because dirt and water are great at absorbing heat, the table will keep the GRoW Home cool, Rajkovich says: At night the device can be wheeled outside to remove some of the day’s warmth from the premises.

The GRoW Home’s greenhouse and solarium will house 10 of these tables. The elegant, simple design was facilitated by Rigidized Metals Corporation, which manufactured the trays, and Kee Safety Inc., which provided Kee Klamps, pipe and other hardware to hold the tables together.

Source: State University of New York at Buffalo

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