Housing Design Education - Energy Conserving Affordable Housing

Energy Conserving Affordable Housing

Mary C. Hardin, University of Arizona


This Housing Design Education program utilizes the learning vehicle of design-build,  affordable housing projects with research components that investigate the cost effectiveness of regional vernacular construction methods paired with energy and water conservation strategies to control initial construction costs and long-term operational costs of single-family dwellings.

The school of architecture formed a 501c3 non-profit corporation in order to establish a business entity that could carry a contractor’s license and liability insurance, take out construction loans, and accept donations for the purpose of designing and constructing affordable housing.

Initial steps for the program included the development of design guidelines, which weigh initial costs of various technologies versus long term operational and maintenance costs, and direct the decision-making during the design process for all housing units. Students build budget and energy models, tackle critical path construction scheduling, and interact with subcontractors, inspectors, and building permit officials during design and construction. Energy performance is monitored for one year post-occupancy in each residence, via thermal sensors that are placed into the wall and roof assemblies during construction. In this way, predicted energy use can be verified by actual data, and design strategies can be improved with each iteration of design. Seven dwellings have been designed, constructed, and monitored through this program.

The impact of these dwellings, sold to low-income homeowners is profound for the buyers. Afforded an entry into the mainstream of local homeownership, they save on utility bills while building equity. Over twelve years, approximately 320 students have been exposed to the entire spectrum of housing design - from land acquisition, program development, all phases of design, construction and project execution, as well as energy and budget modeling and project scheduling. The post-occupancy studies of actual energy use teach the responsibility of verifying predictions and correcting assumptions for the next iteration of design.