Richard Garber owns a small architectural firm in New York called GRO Architecture that has been involved in various design projects including high-performance designs, sustainable houses, and exhibition work using energy efficient designs. He is also an associate professor of architecture and design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) College of Architecture and Design, Newark, N.J., where he has taught for six years. Garber is leading Team New Jersey in the 2011 Solar Decathlon, taking place on the National Mall, Washington D.C, September 23–October 2.

Richard Garber—Associate professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology

Richard Garber—Associate professor at New Jersey Institute of Technology

What is your role in the Solar Decathlon?

My firm GRO had just completed a single story precast concrete house, PREttyFAB, which is a sustainable house for a private client in Jersey City, N.J. Rutgers University called NJIT because they heard about the house and thought that the experience from building it could help the design studio and be applied to the Solar Decathlon. I was charged to be the faculty advisor for the project and put together a stellar team of 12 from NJIT, mainly fourth and fifth year architectural students, to work with a group from Rutgers who are mechanical engineers, planners and landscape architects.

Why did you choose a precast concrete design?

We chose precast concrete sandwich panel walls to minimize the thermal transmission in and out of the Solar Decathlon house. At the start of the PREttyFAB project, we sat down with client who is an older gentleman and a bachelor. He wanted a maintenance-free house to grow old in. We first considered poured-in-place concrete but quickly discovered that it was cost prohibitive. (Cast-in-place concrete requires more equipment, time and testing to complete a project compared to precast concrete.) Now, what we designed for the Solar Decathlon was far more advanced in terms of the technology. We constructed PREttyFAB with concrete only for the outer wall and we didn’t use concrete on the floors or the roof; those were designed with traditional materials. Our house is the first house in the history of the competition to be a prefabricated concrete entry—we’re also the heaviest.

How do the sandwich concrete panels work?

We researched and found Northeast Precast to help us design concrete panels. John Ruga, owner of Northeast Precast, hadn’t built concrete panels for a house before so it was a great learning experience for both of us. He came up with the sandwich panels for the Solar Decathlon house, which are a concrete sandwich panel consisting of a few inches of concrete on both sides of polystyrene insulation tied together with fiberglass ties. This design allows a concrete finish on the interior and exterior, which was not something we could do with PREttyFAB, we had to use mortar and wood to finish the inside of the house.

What made the concrete panels an advantage over traditional structures?

Concrete is an interesting material in that it absorbs heat in the day and gives it off at night. When we were working on the PREttyFAB home in the summer, temperatures hit 95 F, making the house 75 F without air conditioning. That struck me as a strategy that could be utilized in the Decathlon project. We sat down with the students and decided that we wanted to optimize the Solar Decathlon house with passive strategies, using insulated materials and windows for air flow. The passive strategies keep the house at a constant temperature, which means less energy is spent to heat or cool the rooms. We wanted to optimize on basic design principals then add in technical and mechanical equipment. Then BASF, one of our sponsors, developed a product called NUOPOR, which is an insulation that has graphite embedded in it. We used it in the insulation to achieve a higher r-value (nearly 35) than a standard wood frame house (normally 20.)