Tucked away next to a large dorm building on the edge of Woodbury University’s campus in Burbank is a small but very noticeable house. The 425 square meter house is surrounded by a gently curved concrete form, equipped with a spacious veranda and a dramatic sloping roof. Sleek, carefully offset floor-to-ceiling windows gently illuminate the interior.
It’s a beautiful piece of architecture. What makes it truly remarkable is who built it – and how.
The House of the solar future, as it is officially called, was designed by Woodbury architecture students and made from concrete using the latest 3D printing technology. According to Woodbury Architecture Dean Heather Flood, it is the first such approved structure in the city of Los Angeles. And it was built by Emerging, a 3D printing construction company based in Redding. (A quick geographical explanation: While Woodbury has a Burbank address, part of the campus on which the house was built lies within Los Angeles city limits—hence the LA permits.)
What is most remarkable is how quickly this project came to fruition. “It took 15 months from planning, to the permitting process with the city, to working with the printer, to dealing with 14 atmospheric storms,” says Kishani De Silva, director of the construction management program at Woodbury, who served as faculty lead on the project. “It came to life on May 12th. … Literally the next day, students graduated.”
From design to near completion in 15 months? In bureaucratic Los Angeles, this is almost the case Wonder-.
It certainly helped that the students worked with community experts from the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, the Bureau of Engineering and others a non-profit cleantech company Incubator in the Ministry of Water and Energy – Organizations that could help deal with the bureaucratic burden. But at a time when our region is gripped by a housing and homelessness crisis, it is still a model worth exploring.
To be clear, the house isn’t 100% finished yet – although it’s awfully close. Drywall work is still required in some interior areas and some exterior and landscaping remains unfinished. In addition, the building requires a certificate of occupancy from the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety.
But it’s an impressive piece of design that does a lot in a small space.
The layers of 3D printed concrete give the walls a geological look, and the curved shape and high ceilings keep this small-scale studio from feeling like a shoebox. In addition, the covered veranda and the living room are connected by a sliding door; Open it up and the room feels larger and airier.
And as the name suggests, this is a structure that prioritizes environmental concerns.
The Solar Futures House began as an entry in the Solar decathlona national college competition organized by the U.S. Department of Energy that encourages aspiring designers to create high-performance structures powered by renewable energy.
In spring 2022, a class of Woodbury students submitted a design proposal and was selected as one of 14 finalists and received a $50,000 construction grant. The team broke ground this fall.
The structure they built was all about efficiency. The shower water is circulated to flush the toilet. The house’s curved shape and sloped roof are designed to respond to the angle of the sun throughout the year, maximizing solar power production. Currently, the structure has a rooftop solar array, making the building net zero (meaning no additional electricity is needed to power the home). Add another and it becomes grid positive, adding energy to the grid.
The angled roof is made of reflective resin-coated metal and rests at 9 inches Mineral wool insulation, which helps maintain the building’s internal temperature and dampens external noise. (Woodbury’s campus is adjacent to Highway 5, but between the double-layered concrete walls, triple-pane windows, and insulation, the house feels quiet.) The mineral wool insulation also acts as fire protection—addressing another environmental problem in California.
To reduce the use of carbon-intensive concrete, the team developed a formula that contained a higher proportion of fly ash, making it more sustainable. The precision of 3D printing also means no concrete is wasted.
This new construction method allowed the building’s double-layer walls to be erected quickly: De Silva estimates that printing took about three days. It also allowed students to play with the form. In traditional stick construction, 90 degree angles are the most efficient way for walls to meet. However, 3D printing allows for more flexible shapes. hence the curved walls, which give the house a more organic look. Take the bathroom: Designed in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, it’s not an afterthought—it’s housed in an attractive, rounded room that also has laundry facilities.
Of course, the DOE grant did not cover all costs.
Flood estimates the home’s current budget is about $250,000, including in-kind contributions and donated services from area companies. Based in LA Nous Engineering participated in the shell construction work, while Breen Design Group in Torrance he helped with the mechanical systems; Mitsubishi Electric donated an HVAC system and Ikea supplied furniture.
The Solar Futures House is a significant achievement – especially considering this Woodbury is a small school (less than 1,000 students) and its accredited architecture program is relatively new, founded in 1994. The university serves primarily students from Southern California, many of them Latino, making it a designated university Hispanic serving facility. (The school plays a crucial role in diversifying the field as architecture is here to stay predominantly white.)
Two dozen students worked on the Solar Futures House over the course of two academic years, rotating in and out of the project as part of their coursework. But some of them managed to make it through from start to finish, including Karin Najarian And Jade Royder; Sergio Santos was able to work on the house throughout last year.
The Solar Futures House will soon be habitable; University leaders are discussing how it could be used. Options include a guest house for guest speakers or a dormitory for a student whose housing is uncertain.
Whatever its ultimate purpose, the home will continue to function as a teaching tool. “It is a prototype for a design and construction method, and the actual shape and form could be varied,” says Flood. “It could be adapted to many different site conditions. You can nest multiple units together to create structural efficiencies.” (Construction companies have already started setting up two-story buildings using 3D printing technology.)
Woodbury students will be able to take this original concept and refine and adapt it to the needs of other audiences, such as older adults.
The house may be almost finished, but the ideas behind it are just beginning to take hold.
To learn more about the Solar Futures House and to stay up to date on upcoming public events, visit the project’s website at solar.woodbury.edu.