An estimated 50,000 of them pepper New Zealand's pristine cliffs and shores, historically cobbled from fibrolite (asbestos sheets), corrugated iron, old timber or even recycled trams, and devoid of electricity and running water. Since the mid-20th Century, and though most have received modern updates with some even evolving into multimillion dollar escapes, the Kiwi bach (pron. "batch") - a kind of eclectic vacation bungalow - has been the go-to domicile for thousands of New Zealanders seeking solace from the daily grind, usually with family, extended family and good friends in tow.
For the 2011 U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon’s Team New Zealand, reimagining the bach in a sustainable light occurred to a core of four Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture students a couple of years ago, according to team spokesperson Nick Officer. The concept of competition was nary a glint in their eyes, however.
“It was just a project for us, but the university really liked it and pushed us to submit a proposal,” Officer said of their subsequent entry into the Decathlon, where students are charged with creating and manipulating an affordable (under $250,000) net zero energy house. “From there it just snowballed,” he affirmed, noting New Zealand is the first entry from the Southern Hemisphere in the event’s history.
With construction commencing in February and ending in May, and following an 18-day open house that hosted 20,000 visitors in Wellington, “First Light”—aptly named for the country that receives the planet’s first rays of daylight— began its painstaking 30-day crossing to the United States. Transiting the Panama Canal, and on to Philadelphia, the house arrived in D.C. by truck – in six containers. Reassembled at the National Mall in just under seven days by 26 dedicated though sleep-deprived students (the trip from New Zealand took 30 hours with a Los Angeles stopover), Team New Zealand competes against 19 other teams in 10 categories, including architecture, market appeal and engineering, in pursuit of solar gold (first place).
Favoring an indoor/outdoor motif, Officer said New Zealanders are very passionate about their landscape and environment, in this case teasing them all the way through the 800 s.f. house. Sustainable decking runs both outdoors and indoors, with large, triple-glazed windows and a mammoth skylight exposing occupants to open sky. Bi-folding doors on both sides of the house open its interior to air and light, and a striking, shade-producing timber canopy above the house’s waterproof membrane provides independent support for a six kilowatt solar array containing 28 polycrystalline photovoltaic panels and 40 evacuated tube solar collectors. An interactive energy system monitors and displays the house’s output vis-à-vis weather conditions.
With “First Light” created as a year round residence, as opposed to a traditional Kiwi bach used in summer, concrete slab flooring beneath the space’s largest windows passively absorbs and stores the heat of day, retaining it for comfort in cooler months. A reverse-cycle heat pump affords energy-sensitive heating and cooling,
“We’ve got a foot of sheep’s wool in between the walls,” Officer said in reference to the space’s native resource-type insulation, giving it an R-value of 6, “almost like wrapping the house in a wooly blanket.”
Employing “sustainable, renewable, elemental materials,” Officer cited the use of timber that includes native New Zealand Rimu garnered from an old sheep shearing shed, Western Red Cedar for the exterior—a detachable cladding system was developed by the team, and sustainably-sourced Pinus radiata—a species of pine—used for structural elements and interior linings.
Innovations such as a clothes drying cupboard, where solar-heated water is propelled through rails and a fan accelerates drying, and multifunctional rooms with custom, adaptable furniture—including bunk beds and a sofa bed—plus a master bedroom, help ensure family and guests are not left behind or are without conveniences. “It’s about a lot of people able to be in one space, enjoying each other’s company,” Officer said of the historical Kiwi bach concept. Following the Decathlon, "First Light" will travel back to New Zealand where it is slated to become a private home.
Graduating this December with a master’s degree in architecture, Officer indicated it’s been a busy year and he’s not had time to give much thought to where he’ll practice his craft. “I’ll go anywhere in the world to work on sustainable projects,” he said.
photos courtesy of Kelly Matlock and Team New Zealand