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Solar Home Showcases Green Design

Fall 2011 | By Linda Thomas Terhune. Photo by $photocredit.value.

You may never look at your philodendron in the same way again.

Sure, the unassuming houseplant looks pretty and can add life to your decor, but did you know it can also become a focal element in sustainable interior design? The philodendron, a low-maintenance and commonly available plant, is among the new tools used by interior designers mindful of low-impact, value-added approaches to environmentally conscious living environments.

The philodendron and other leafy houseplants can be used to form bio walls, living surfaces incorporated into home design that both beautify rooms and improve air quality. Such a wall was among the unusual features in Purdue's entry in the Solar Decathlon 2011, a U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored competition in September and October in Washington, D.C. The biowall, developed by Purdue team manager Kevin Rodgers, is the first residential application of technology developed by NASA to provide fresh air in the Space Station.

In the biennial competition, collegiate teams create solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. Purdue's INhome — a two-bedroom, one-bath house, designed and built by more than 200 students, faculty, and staff from across six colleges over a two-year period — placed second out of 19 competitors. The team included College of Liberal Arts students from film and video studies, interior design, sociology, and visual communications design. Faculty in interior design were instrumental in the architecture of the home, which has been moved back to Indiana for placement in a Lafayette neighborhood where it will be sold to become a permanent residence.

Sarah Miller, who graduated in May with an interior design degree and is now pursuing graduate studies at Purdue in building construction management, served as the INHome architecture and design manager. As lead interior designer, she was responsible for advising on the choice of sustainable materials, ranging from LED lighting to recycled flooring, countertop options, and environmentally friendly paints.


Miller is in the vanguard of young interior designers determined to have an impact by leaving as small a footprint as possible on the environment. Her focus is on integrated and sustainable design, a part of the greater "green design and build" movement that began in the early 1990s. Sustainable design is the fastest-growing segment of the interior design industry.

"The goal of sustainable design is to prevent the environmental damage inherent in traditional processes of how things are made, buildings are constructed, and landscapes are used," says Rosemary Kilmer, professor of interior design and a consultant on the project. "Therefore, we must attempt to produce a new generation of buildings that deliver high performance inside and out. We're working to achieve a balance that accommodates human needs without diminishing the health and productivity of our natural systems."

Miller says she saw an opportunity with the solar home project to get involved in an interdisciplinary effort with others who share her passion for sustainability and the increasingly popular team approach — architects, engineers, contractors, designers, and homeowners — to design and build projects.

Purdue's 984-square-foot home, which won kudos for its livability from those who toured it in Washington, was designed for a typical Midwestern residential market. Its appearance — sedate in comparison to some of the other glassy, ultra-contemporary entries — was purposefully controlled to appeal to a broad audience. Its passive solar design elements include south-facing window walls and natural ventilation with clerestory windows. The color palette? Well. That goes back to the philodendron.

The plant bio wall, located in the open living area, is integrated as an organic filter with the HVAC system, extracting carbon dioxide and volatile organic compounds from the air inside the home. It sets the tone for the house: neutral and light colors that reflect the natural environment.

"Our goal was to make a marketable home that could be placed in any city in America," Miller says. "I believe we reached many people and often changed minds that previously perceived solar living as something for only a select few technologically inclined modern innovators."

Solar home kitchen

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