The rooms might have been made completely out of cardboard and foam core, but you knew these interior architecture students could just see the finished product.

“This counter will be made out of recycled glass,” said Matt Weikert, pointing to a swath of brown in the kitchen.

And over there? That’s the oven. Here? A separate cook top.

Matt, along with other students in Travis Hicks and Stoel Burrowes‘ Interior Architecture 301 class and several alumni, spent two days building a life-size mock-up of a house during the fall semester.

“We had to build it to see how the space really worked,” said Jack Kennedy, a third year interior architecture student.

“It was eye-opening,” said Cat French, a graduate student working on the project.

Introducing The Canopy House

Their interior plans for an 877-square-foot home are part of a larger effort with engineering and architecture students from Hampton University and Old Dominion University to build “The Canopy House” for the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon.

In this competition, collegiate teams are challenged to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy efficient and attractive. After a summer of planning, UNCG students, who had worked in groups of five, traveled to Virginia in September to present their ideas. Team Tidewater chose bits and pieces from each group.

The theme? Aging in place.

“This home could be for any stage of life,” French said. “It’s ADA accessible. We worked with the assumption that one person is in a wheelchair and the other is able-bodied.”

That means the counter is 32 inches high. The refrigerator has a freezer in the bottom, not the top. The cook top is separate from the oven so that a wheelchair-bound person can open the cabinets below and roll close enough to cook. The home has no changing levels, no rugs to trip on.

Students from the three universities were given a target budget of $250,000, which does not include additional costs of shipping the house to Orange County, Calif.

While sustainability isn’t a criterion of the competition, UNCG students naturally lean toward sustainable materials. Cabinets will use FSC-Certified (Forestry Stewardship Council) hardwood plywood made by Greensboro-based Columbia Forest Products. Floors will be bamboo and hard wood. Countertops use recycled glass.

“It’s about the thought going forward,” Matt said.

Moving ahead

The competition itself won’t take place until October. Since building the mock-up, students have finished final renderings and animations. See a video walkthrough.

The students in Hicks’ IAR 412 class have picked up where the 301 class left off. Most are working on the house for the first time, bringing new energy to the project. They are focused more on furnishings. For example, Brian Peck is building a series of benches and nightstands from salvage lumber that sat for decades in a local barn.

In April, they made a one-day trek to Virginia to share updates with their university partners and to do some “value engineering” – making the price more affordable by making some different choices during the design phase.

“It’s a valuable life lesson for students,” Hicks said.

Over winter break, students traveled to Princeton with Hicks and Burrowes to meet with well-known architect and designer Michael Graves. Graves had been Hicks’ graduate thesis advisor.

In 2003, an infection left Graves paralyzed from the waist down. He is now an expert and advocate for universal design.

Students presented their Canopy House designs to him. He pointed out that the reach of a person in a chair is critical to design. In the design they presented, they had a conventional sink in the bathroom, which wouldn’t work.

Students toured the outside of Graves’ home, one he had designed for himself years before.

“One of the most poignant things he said was this house wasn’t designed for himself. It was designed for a former version of himself,” Hicks said. “You have to make accommodations as you get older; your abilities change. I hope that the students have taken this to heart.”

Story by Beth English

Photos by Christopher English