Students Rethink Sustainable Housing for Norris

There were several models for the Norris House, each one conceived with regard to the lot size and surrounding terrain, and engineered "with the environment in mind."

In 1933, the Tennessee Valley Authority engineered the community of Norris as a town of the future, creating a bastion of environmental efficiency and sustainable development in an era when few planners gave those ideas a second thought.

More than 75 years later, a group of University of Tennessee students have re-imagined the community and its centerpiece design element—the Norris House—for the 21st century, in hopes of reconciling history and aesthetics with state-of-the-art sustainability.

"Anyone can design a sustainable home if you thrown enough money and insulation into it," says fifth-year architecture student Samuel Mortimer, a native Chattanoogan. "We wanted to do more than just build a super-efficient energy box. Because if people don't want to actually live in it, then it's not very sustainable."

Mortimer and six other students recently took top honors at the P3 Award Competition at the Environmental Protection Agency's National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. Their winning project was presented as "The New Norris House: A Sustainable Home for the 21st Century."

Other team members included architecture undergrads Levi Hooten, Daniel Luster, and Joan Monaco, and planning graduate students Bethany Wild, Ramune Morales, and Thomas Herbert. Tim Ezzell, a research scientist at the UT Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE), and Tricia Stuth of the College of Architecture and Design, were faculty sponsors.

Ezzell conceived the notion of updating the Norris House, in part to recognize TVA's 75th anniversary in 2008. The original Norris homes were built to house TVA employees assigned to the Norris Dam project, which broke ground in 1933 and opened in 1936.

The town's original design was truly ahead of its time, says Ezzell, featuring curvilinear streets, a central green commons area, and a surrounding buffer of forest land to block outside development.

But the community's key design component was the Norris House. There were several models, Ezzell says, each one conceived with regard to the lot size and surrounding terrain, and engineered "with the environment in mind."

"It was very progressive," Ezzell says. "TVA was trying to address erosion, deforestation, and other environmental issues of the day."

The Norris Houses received national attention in the '30s, including photo features in Life and Better Homes and Gardens, Ezzell says.

For the new Norris design, students began last fall with a series of workshops and other fact-finding visitations to the community itself. Both faculty and students say community members were helpful, very hospitable, but sometimes cautious in their approach to change.

"People were in some degree open to change, but to a very real degree, they were also happy where they are," Mortimer says. "They were not always open to something different. There was a realization, though, that their community could be made better."

To reconcile competing notions of style, context, and environmentalism, the students looked at the project from literally dozens of perspectives. They conducted surveys, went on field trips, consulted with experts, and held other special studies in town history, regional topography and climate, demographic patterns. They visited a sawmill in Dandridge and interviewed local craftspeople in hopes of employing locally harvested woods and locally produced products.

"They are pretty fabulous students," Stuth says of the group members. "They were in charge of the design process. My job was just to continually ask questions, provide commentary and criticism, and then to coordinate the field trips."

Mortimer characterizes the group's final plan as "emphasizing simple, smart concepts, concentrating on passive elements." He notes design elements calling for home placements that take advantage of natural shade and lighting, and make for optimal rainwater collection.

The larger community design also calls for homes built in clusters of three, for the purpose of sharing water collection, heating and air conditioning. "By sharing some of the larger infrastructure items, we kept the homes open to a larger demographic group," Mortimer says. "We tried to make the homes sustainable, beautiful, and affordable, so that we can push the idea into the threshold of something that works in the real world."

The homes include countless other forward-thinking design features—some simple, some cutting edge—including the use of sustainable wood products, solar-powered water heaters, on-site gray water treatment, extra-thick walls, and superior insulation.

Now comes phase two: with the $75,000 prize money from the EPA competition, the ISSE would like to have a New Norris House actually constructed within the community. This fall, students and faculty will work on obtaining necessary permits; the spring will see fabrication of parts of the home at the Art and Architecture Building.

By summer of 2010, the first New Norris Home could be finished on-site. That first home may see duty as a testing ground, where future students can live and collect data on its function.

Mortimer describes the design process leading up to the D.C. contest win as "an experience like no other; stressful at times, gratifying at times, and always a roller coaster.

"Hopefully people will see the finished product within the community and say, ‘Wow, that looks like a great place to live.'"