Students Offer a Historic Take on Housing's Future
Based on a Depression-era concept home, students at the University of Tennessee have put together a house to fit tomorrow's needs.

They say that if you want to know your future, you have to look to your past. While that may seem like outdated advice in an age of technological advances and a housing market that is particularly off kilter, a team at the University of Tennessee and Clayton Homes is using a historical building concept to offer a glimpse of what's to come.

Titled the New Norris House, the project acts as a living lab for energy-efficient and green concepts and systems, employing everything from a super insulated shell to a multi-split heating and cooling system to see what it takes to build—as well as live in—a super-efficient home.

The concept for the project harks back to 1933, when in the depths of the Great Depression, the Tennessee Valley Authority embarked on a New Deal program to build the first planned community in the U.S. Central to that plan was the Norris House, a series of home designs meant to be models for affordable, modern, and efficient living in an area plagued by poverty. At the time, the latest new technology in home building was electricity, and the Norris House project set out to use it to improve lives in the Tennessee Valley.

Reinterpreting that concept for the 21st century, the University of Tennessee's College of Architecture and Design's project is built on a plan that is not only energy efficient and sustainable, but that also brings in the newest iteration of life-changing technology: the Internet. Thanks to wireless communications, the home's residents "can stay in Norris, while staying connected through technology," explains Samuel Mortimer, a research specialist who has worked on the project since its inception.

To that end, the recently completed home is being put to the test for a year by Ken McCown and Mary Leverance, a couple perfectly situated as a model for future buyers. While McCown works as the chair of the Landscape Architecture program at the university, Leverance is a graduate student who is completing her courses online, while working part-time from home. The pair will be blogging about their experiences adapting to life in the super-efficient space.

In an effort to stay true to the original Norris House's concept of affordable living, "the first thing we did was... pare down the footprint," Mortimer says. But at 750 square feet, the home lives larger than it is thanks to its thoughtful architecture. "The high ceilings in the living areas, the skylight, and the large windows make the space seem big and open," says Leverance. White walls and a rich wood floor add to the feeling of spaciousness.

Beginning with a modular shell from Clayton Homes, which worked closely with the students to develop the design, the home is as highly insulated as you might expect such a project to be. Using 2x6 advanced framing, the team reduced lumber use by 17% to reduce thermal breaks and replaced the wood with a 17% increase in insulation. An active rainwater system is used to operate the toilets, washing machine, and an external hose. The home's water is heated by a solar system, that is backed up by electricity. And the home is heated and cooled by a Mitsubishi multi-split air-source heat pump that uses refrigerant lines that run through the walls and under the house, but that does not require ducts.

The final cost for everything is still being calculated. While not likely to be strikingly cheap, thanks to higher upfront costs, the home's many efficiencies will reduce living expenses for residents over time. And judging by the response the house has already received, those upfront costs don't seem to be a big hindrance: With a year or more before it goes to auction, Mortimer estimates that between 15 to 20 people have contacted the school expressing interest in buying. "Every two weeks or so, another one calls and asks to be added to the [auction] list."

Claire Easley is a senior editor at Builder.