Oct 292011

Summer 2011
Norwich Record: Norwich University Alumni Magazine
News Feature


Zero Weight, Infinite Span

An Analogy of Design


In the early 1970s, G. Robert le Ricolais, a University of Pennsylvania professor, presented to the fields of architecture and structural engineering the paradoxical dictum: “Zero weight, infinite span,” as the ultimate goal in structural design. The goal, of course, is impossible, but to seek the impossible, le Ricolais supposed, was to obtain, perhaps, the previously unimagined.

Mathew Lutz, a design/ build professor at Norwich University thinks often about this paradox. Norwich University students, over the past year and under the guidance of Lutz and assistant professor Danny Sagan, have been perfecting the designs of a net-zero, passive solar house, the RAE(V) house (pronounced rave). The students have worked with Lutz and Sagan in Norwich’s Design/Build Studio, and though the goal of the project is a tad less lofty than that of le Ricolais, Lutz’s expectation remains the same: Strive for the impossible and see how far you get.

The RAE(V) house is being designed and built as part of the University’s bid for a place in the 2013 Solar Decathlon, a biennial competition hosted by the US Department of Energy. The DOE established the contest in 2002 to spur ingenuity in the field of sustainable design. Each competition invites collegiate teams from around the globe to submit plans for a solar-powered home that most effectively combines cost, aesthetics, energy efficiency and superior design. Twenty teams are then selected to compete, and if selected to compete, the home, once built, must be transported to Washington DC for display on the National Mall.

The RAE(V)house was first conceived in 2010 and submitted for entry in the 2011 Solar Decathlon. Norwich was not then chosen to compete, but Lutz and the others were not deterred. Their sights shifted to 2013, and the RAE(V) house went into considerable design review. “I can show you 20 different floor plans that we thought, ‘okay this is it,’ and then we found something better,” Lutz explains. “We just kept fine tuning it, and it kept getting better and better.”

More than 50 Norwich students have played a role in the conceptualization, design and construction of the RAE(V) house since it was started in 2010. The RAE(V) house is now one of two projects to be designed and eventually built under the direction of the university’s Center for the Integrated Study of the Built Environment (CISBE). The center was created in 2009 to encourage collaboration between Norwich’s architecture, engineering and construction management students, and the RAE(V) house is an example of its success.

Students began construction on the RAE(V) house earlier this spring and Lutz expects it will be finished by the end of August. Nine students enrolled in a summer Design/ Build Studio and spent nearly 80 percent of their class time working “in the field,” where they received regular instruction as the building progressed. “Of that 80 percent,” Lutz says, “there was a lot of talking. We huddled a lot and looked at details.”

The le Ricolais paradox is something Lutz often shares with his students. The goal of the RAE(V house — to be a low-cost, net-zero energy, fully solar-powered home in Vermont — is, if not impossible, extremely difficult to achieve. But like le Ricolais, Lutz pushes his students to reach for the impossible. “That was their challenge,” Lutz says. “And what they came up with was really extraordinary.”