When Building a House Is the Ultimate Final Exam

It's the beginning of a beautiful friendship when SCI-Arc and Habitat LA complete a sustainable house together.

Architecture students are busy. Nights are spent clicking away on a computer, sketching, and using an arguably unhealthy amount of Gorilla glue to make pristine models. The first time someone sees a building, it's hard to imagine all the study models and sleepless nights required to make that house or community center happen. So what happens when the students go beyond that final chipboard model and actually build a house? 

The Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) is widely known for their embrace of technology and experimentation. It's not entirely common for an architecture school to have a robot lab or be known for their students to be as akin to coding as they are designing structures. Since 2011, SCI-Arc students have been participating in the Solar Decathlon, a competition to build a sustainable house sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. 

Continuing that spirit, the school has partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles (Habitat LA) to build homes around the area to activate communities in a positive way. Just this June, the IVRV house was completed and became the residence Belete Belhu, an army veteran, and his family. 

A collection of study models during the final review of the SCI-Arc house for Habitat LA. 

The SCI-Arc students were tasked with designing a house that would be sustainable and a bold design. The house is part of an initiative to reinvigorate the West Athens neighborhood. "It's actually the most simple kind of building form that you can construct for a single family residence, right? It's like a two-story gabled box," says Darin Johnstone, the project's program coordinator. The dramatic cut in front utilizes northern light in the front half of the house, while the south side is tilted to maximize a deep inset for shade and serve as a giant insulation wall.

Models on exhibition during SCI-Arc's reception for their project in partnership with Habitat LA. 

Early designs of the house presented at the final review for the SCI-Arc and Habitat LA final project. 

The project began in 2014 as a series of design studios: three classes and one seminar in total. The first studio course was structured similarly to an architecture competition. In the beginning, the students worked through 10-12 initial designs; five projects were short-listed. The final design was selected by a jury. During the following term, the students developed the plan for the house. The final studio focused on obtaining permits and working with the city. Once everything was in order, construction was ready to begin. Johnstone taught a summer semester for students to build the house. 

Students build a mock up of the Eco-Screen, a system that uses solar energy and provides better air quality. 

The most striking component of the house is what Johnstone describes as the "Eco-Screen." After researching prefabricated systems and materials, the students created the screen to perform a number of sustainable functions inside and out. The steel structure captures energy from exterior photovoltaic modules while improving air quality with a purifying coating of titanium dioxide. 

The IVRV House's Eco-Screen in action. Designed by SCI-Arc students for their partnership with Habitat LA.

The house also features an entry courtyard. The Eco-Screen diffuses light for shade. 

Architecture school is an experience that architects and designers always carry with them. It is a very defining time and shapes their approach to design significantly. Opportunities like the partnership between SCI-Arc and Habitat LA reveal the collaboration required to build a house that may not always be visible. The hands-on learning experience shows that architecture school can be a laboratory for students to test out theories while making a positive impact on the city where they live. "I guess I'm a very optimistic person and I believe one of the really beautiful possibilities of the house is that the young children growing up in it will be influenced by design. I hope they'll be really happy there and I think they will—they're so excited," Johnstone says.

The new house stands out in the neighborhood, illuminated at night. 

The back of the house includes areas to garden and a pathway


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