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Multidisciplinary Team Builds Zero Emissions House

Professor and five students inside ZEM House.

Professor Jinny Rhee with students inside their ZEM house (Rhee, Michael Signorelli, Kendrick Lau, Eden Specht and daughter, Michael Murray and Jesus Contreras). Photo by Elena Polanco.

By Pat Lopes Harris, Media Relations Director

What’s the best thing about SJSU’s very first ZEM (that’s zero-emissions) house?

We built it,” said mechanical engineering major Eden Specht.

“We” means 25 students from five departments, making this one of San Jose State’s most ambitious interdisciplinary senior projects ever.

Specht placed the emphasis on the “we” because students built the whole thing from the ground up: drawing up plans, picking out materials, and hammering the whole thing together.

You can check out their pride and joy — and perhaps learn something new about sustainability — at the Charles W. Davidson College of Engineering Open House 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 16. Featuring department presentations, lab demonstrations and the like, the engineering event is timed to coincide with Admitted Spartan Day.

Bright Blue Walls

“This far exceeds anything I’ve ever supervised before,” said Jinny Rhee, associate professor of mechanical engineering.

The house is definitely a site to behold, its bright blue angled walls rising from the engineering courtyard (which, by the way, is chock full of all sorts of inventions). With just one room, the house was built more for learning than living, though all the techniques are very much applicable to real homes.

For instance, that power blue material peeking out from unfinished interior? That’s insulation made from recycled denim jeans. And the angled, south-facing front wall? That’s a passive solar element that keeps the house cool during the summer and warm during the winter given seasonal changes in the sun’s path.

The house is also equipped with a heat pump, solar panels and LED lighting with motion detectors, though there’s not much need for daytime lighting. Sunlight fills the interior without heating it up thanks to a bank of small, north-facing windows along the peak of the A-frame roof.

The project is being funded by a $150,000 National Science Foundation grant. Other sponsors include Westinghouse Solar, Sun Xtender, Heartwood Communities, Schneider Electric, and Prestige Glass and Storefront Company. Rhee is the principal investigator. Co-principal investigators are David Parent (electrical engineering), Anuradha Basu (business), Leslie Speer (industrial design), and Larry Gerston (political science).

Working together, students from all these departments drafted plans, built a model, sought support from corporations and foundations, and then began construction March 1. Even a couple civil engineering students pitched in, adding trusses to ensure the 100-square-foot structure is earthquake-safe.

Real World Experience

Though the house is considered coursework, it’s clear that for students like Specht, it’s about far more than getting a good grade. A new father who comes to campus carrying his baby girl, he pours time into the effort, motivated by the opportunity to do hands-on work on a well funded endeavor supported by many faculty members.

“This is my favorite part of being an engineering student,” he said.

For mechanical engineering major Kendrick Lau, working with students with all kinds of expertise, from finance to fire safety, is invaluable.

“We get to see what it’s like in the real world before we hit the real world,” he said.

To Professor Rhee, the house sends a very clear message about the contributions technology can make to sustainability.

“I plan on researching green buildings for years to come,” she said.#