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UC Students Design Net-Zero Home in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine Neighborhood

Over-the-Rhine (OTR) is one of Cincinnati’s most historic neighborhoods. From Findlay Market to Cincinnati Music Hall to old churches and breweries, OTR is rich with cultural history. But with historic buildings come historic problems.

As industries seek to renovate and recover these old homes, they struggle with incorporating new energy-saving practices to historically sensitive neighborhoods. A team of University of Cincinnati students set out to solve this problem through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Race to Zero competition.

Race to Zero is an annual student competition that “challenges collegiate teams to apply sound building science principles to create cost-effective, market-ready designs” that meet federal standards set by the agency's Zero Energy Ready Home program. In other words, the competition challenges students to design practical net-zero homes. In a historic neighborhood such as OTR, this can be a challenge.

“There aren’t a lot of articles or research on designing a net-zero home in a historically sensitive neighborhood,” said UC student Alex Rodrigues, team lead of the project. “With UC right next to OTR, we had this huge opportunity in our back yard.”

Neighborhoods such as OTR have old designs, homes built in close proximity and certain building codes and limitations, Rodrigues said. For example, according to neighborhood standards, each home in OTR must be a certain height and be built using a certain type and color of brick.

To prepare for the competition, the team, which consisted of three architectural engineering students and four architecture students, collaborated with local companies including Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), CMTA Engineering Consultants and Sol Design Consulting. The team modeled its design on a real plot of land (1531 Pleasant St.) owned by 3CDC. This land was the site of a vacant lot wedged between two buildings, presenting another challenge that limited the team’s design capabilities.

The team studied the plot, determined the problems and found practical solutions to save energy. The students came up with a design that incorporated environmental features like green roofs, solar panels and windows that took advantage of the limited daylight without letting in too much heat from the sun. The team also designed a natural centralized ventilation system that recycled air using energy-efficient heating and cooling units.

Amanda Webb, PhD, assistant professor at UC's College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), was the team’s faculty adviser.

“Professor Webb was instrumental in our success,” Rodrigues said. “She got us in touch with the industry through her connections and was directly engaged with us from the beginning.”

The team started the planning process in mid-October and presented its findings in April, taking almost the entire academic year. Despite being its first year participating in the Race to Zero competition, the UC team made it to the final round in Golden, Colorado. On April 21, the team presented its project at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL).

Rodrigues appreciated the real-world implications of the project. Since the team consisted of students from both CEAS and UC's College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), the project reflected the successful collaboration needed between engineers and architects when designing a building.

Rodrigues said he also enjoyed the flexibility of the project.

“In class we have professors, and on our cooperative education rotations we have supervisors. This was the first time we had our own project that we could design from scratch,” he said.

The project was another opportunity for students to bridge the gap between theory and practice of engineering and design, Rodrigues said.

With more energy-efficient technology and increased environmental consciousness, net-zero buildings will be the future of architectural design and engineering. Though it was UC’s first time in the competition, it won’t be its last.

The UC Race to Zero team consisted of Alex Rodrigues, Chris Jenkins, Colin Martin, Michael Rick, Wyatt Ross, Christine Sima and Hunter Swope.