Architecture student wins home-design competition

BLACKSBURG, Va., Jan. 27, 2005 – The assignment that led to Sean Wheeler's winning entry in the C2C Home design competition was unusual, not only in its guidelines, but in the fact that the winning houses could actually be built.

The contest was based on ideas in the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, co-written by Bill McDonough, one of the judges. The goal was to design a house that was environmentally friendly, practical to build, and amenable to the "new standards of sustainability" described in the book — including the requirement that the houses be designed to be recycled or to be taken apart and the materials used again.

"Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough's proposal for anticipating next uses for materials and products while simultaneously reducing the environmental impact from the production processes requires architecture students like Sean to think outside of typical design and construction norms," said Michael O'Brien, professor of architecture in Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies.

Wheeler, of Powhatan, Va., a fifth-year architecture student at Virginia Tech, will graduate in May and used his thesis as an impetus for his design. "Sean's winning entry proposed a system of sorts, one that would allow both a variety in the initial designs and allow the user to custom tune the house to the changing forms and use patterns a family goes through," O'Brien said.

Wheeler's entry was one of 625 from 41 countries. His was entered in the category for students and unlicensed professionals. As a result of his win, he will receive $5,000 and an internship; but most importantly, he may have a chance to see his design built. McDonough told the Roanoke Times that the judges "looked at the design and knew it was the winner--That is a very simple little house," McDonough told the reporter. "It's very buildable."

"It is a fairly simple house--a modular prefabricated unit that takes advantage of both the existing mobile home and manufactured housing industries," Wheeler said of his design. "But the complexity and adaptability of the design comes into effect when the unit is stacked and grouped with others to make different housing configurations."

Gregg Lewis, an architect from Roanoke who originated the competition, hopes to build several C2C houses if people like them and buy them. However, he is not sure which one will be constructed at the beginning of the building project in May. According to the C2C website, "Partnerships between the members of local professional construction organizations, local business, government, and community groups and university-sanctioned design teams will provide the framework for the construction to occur during the summer of 2005."

Wheeler said his internship would be with McDonough and that he could help develop his design further through construction or work on various other sustainable projects. "The houses might be built in Roanoke, or there is a possibility it might go up in China." Roanoke has a sister city, Lijiang, in China.

The competition, O'Brien said, came out of efforts by Scott Gartner and Heather Woofter last year. They worked with students to develop affordable housing prototypes for infill locations in Roanoke's Old Southwest neighborhood. "Two of the houses designed by Sean's team were constructed this fall and offered for sale," O'Brien said.

Wheeler believes his design was a finalist because it was one of the few entries to address all of the sites in the competition. "Some of the C2C concepts included in the project include the component assembly, green roofs, PV-assisted power, and reclaiming materials from Roanoke's waste streams," he said. "Component assembly includes various bathrooms, kitchens, and other components that can be removed and/or upgraded in the design if, say, a family grows. The green roof is a roof garden. The PV-assisted power is a system of photovoltaic panels that collect solar energy and convert it into electricity. They are mounted on various roof structures that fit into the existing context of the site."

Wheeler anticipates continuing the work this semester "by developing details of the modules and evaluating materials suitable for a C2C approach to housing," O'Brien said.

Other winners in the student and unlicensed professional division, according to the Roanoke Times, were Damien Urain Linnen, of Clemson, S.C., second; Jimyong Yum, of Vancouver, British Columbia, third; and Robert Gay, of Austin, Texas, fourth.

"The Cradle to Cradle Roanoke housing design competition has raised the visibility of Roanoke, holistic thinking about housing, sustainability, renewable resources and consumption," O'Brien said. "Sean Wheeler's winning entry--has similarly brought national and international visibility to Virginia Tech's School of Architecture and Design."