ecoMOD3 Expands Modular, Sustainable, Affordable Housing Research

Some University of Virginia students cheered and clapped as a crane lifted the prefabricated modules into place at their new home in the Castle Hill-Fifeville neighborhood in Charlottesville.

Some University of Virginia students cheered and clapped as a crane lifted the prefabricated modules into place at their new home in the Castle Hill-Fifeville neighborhood in Charlottesville.

The ovation marked the nearing of the completion of ecoMOD3, the third prototype in the ecoMOD project, a multi-year sustainable design/build effort at the U.Va. School of Architecture, in partnership with the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Architecture and engineering students, professors and contractors had worked for a year and a half to design and construct the three prefabricated modules that will transform a deteriorating 19th century home in a traditionally African-American neighborhood into an affordable home designed to accommodate aging residents while adhering to sustainable practices of design and construction, and incorporate energy saving technologies in a prototypical modular system.

"Our goal is to challenge the modular and manufactured housing industry in the United States to explore modular and affordable house prototypes," said assistant professor of architecture John Quale, who serves as ecoMOD project director.


ecoMOD3's 48-member student design/build team sought to address three major themes: housing appropriate for an expanding aging population that wants to 'age in place,' incorporating cutting-edge medical monitoring systems; a highly flexible modular system for affordable housing with rigorous standards for ecological sustainability; and the historic preservation of an 1850s to 1860s house which may have served as slave’s quarters or been built by a freed slave. Dubbed "the SEAM house," its design explores the concept of the ”˜seam’ between new and old; the connection between older and younger generations within a household; the ”˜stitch’ that connects modules together; and the link between inside and outside.

One module is an addition to the historic home and will provide an Americans With Disabilities Act-compliant bedroom constructed with a green roof system and super-insulated ThermaSteel walls. The renovation of the existing home features reconditioned historic wood flooring, a solar hot water system coupled with on-demand water heating and energy-efficient appliances, fixtures and heating and cooling equipment.

The other two modular pods form a separate housing unit to the rear, which may be used by the homeowners as a rental unit to contribute to the affordability of the property. That unit also features super-insulated ThermaSteel wall and roof construction, ADA compliance throughout the unit, sustainable cork flooring, on-demand water heating, a modular green roof system and highly energy-efficient appliances, plumbing fixtures and heating and cooling equipment. Additionally, the design incorporates a large deck with a custom trellis/shade device and a garden/courtyard space.

The eventual tenants of the newly transformed home are yet to be determined. The property is currently owned by the Piedmont Housing Alliance.

The ecoMOD team researched aging issues with the help of local experts and planners, as well as medical and nursing professionals. Energy-saving technologies are incorporated in all areas of the design, as well as careful consideration of natural light and ventilation. The modules' sustainable materials include no volatile organic compounds. A partnership with U.Va.’s Medical Automated Research Center will facilitate the inclusion of noninvasive medical monitoring equipment working in tandem with integrated energy performance monitoring devices developed by the engineering school. ecoMOD is also partnering with the Jefferson Area Board for Aging and Piedmont Preservation on the project.

"I think this has been just the most incredible experience for me, for the team. I'm really proud of it because the more I hear, the more I realize how unique U.Va. is in this program," architecture graduate student and 2005 engineering school graduate Beth Kahley said. "There are a lot of other graduate schools out there doing design/build. There are a number that are focusing in on sustainability. There are a number that are looking at prefab, but the fact that we are rolling all of these agendas into one, along with affordable housing, along with evaluating the product once it's been built, really makes ecoMOD just a completely unique project."

Quale is leading the multidisciplinary team of architecture, engineering, landscape architecture, historic preservation and planning students. Engineering professor Paxton Marshall is the ecoMOD engineering director, and is coordinating the work of the engineering students.

"It's a fantastic education for the engineering students that you can't get in the classroom," Marshall said. "The opportunity to work with the architect, working on a real-world project, having to do with all the contextual issues that are involved in a project like this — budgetary, material selection — and to actually bring it to fruition ... is something that doesn't happen in education too often."

Over the next several years, students and faculty are designing and building several 600- to 1,400-square-foot ecological, modular and affordable housing units. ecoMOD1 — dubbed "the OUTin house" — was completed in Charlottesville, Va., in partnership with Piedmont Housing Alliance, a central Virginia affordable housing organization. ecoMOD2 ”“ "the preHAB house" — was designed in response to Hurricane Katrina and is nearing completion in Gautier, Miss., for Habitat for Humanity International.

Each of the homes in the ecoMOD project will be carefully evaluated. An interdisciplinary team of students are monitoring the energy efficiency, researching the overall environmental impact and analyzing the affordability of the first house.

The ecoMOD project won three major architectural education awards in 2007: the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards Grand Prize, the American Institute of Architects Education Honor Award and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture Collaborative Practice Award. ecoMOD also received a P3: People, Prosperity and the Planet Student Design Award Grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the project's curriculum was selected for special recognition in the 2005 Ecoliteracy in Architecture School Report, published by the American Institute of Architects Committee on the Environment. ecoMOD1 was named the Best Residential Project for 2006 by the Virginia Sustainable Building Network, and ecoMOD3 received an Honor Award from the James River Green Building Council.

ecoMOD3 design will be licensed to Modern Modular of New York City, with the drawings and specifications made available for purchase by individuals and affordable housing organizations.