They call it “Paper House”: a modular, 500-square-foot, high-performance, net zero, low carbon house designed and built by the students in UMass DesignBuild, a joint effort between the Building and Construction Technology Program and Department of Architecture at UMass Amherst and the Five College Architectural Studies program.

DesignBuild is in its second year, and it seeks to address major problems, both in the educational world, and in the broader world at large.

UMass Paper House
Paper House nearly done in September, 2023

“A builder might go through their whole education and never see the work involved in designing a house,” says Carl Fiocchi, a lecturer and professional master’s program coordinator in the Building and Construction Technology Program. “The reverse is true for architects, too, who might never get any experience actually building their designs.”

The DesignBuild class seeks to bridge this gap between the builders and designers with a two-semester sequence. In the spring semester, students are given a set of design parameters—the house’s overall footprint, budget, materials, etc.—and with those in place, design the building and produce construction documents which will direct the construction. Then, in an eight-week summer session, they build the house.

Upon completion, it is transported to Holyoke, Massachusetts—the Paper City—where OneHolyoke CDC, a nonprofit dedicated to improving and supplying housing for low-and moderate-income residents in Holyoke adds it to their inventory. This helps to solve a major social issue—the affordable housing crisis. The Pioneer Valley alone has a shortage of 16,000 housing units.

“The part of the American Dream where you own your own modest home is out of reach for large sections of the US population,” says Fiocchi. “Here in Massachusetts, the median price of a home is more than $600,000. Even closer to home, the median price of a house in Hampshire County is over $400,000.”

The project has caught the eye of local contractors and suppliers, who have donated high-quality materials, money and time to the two DesignBuild projects—Hygge House was completed in the summer of 2022 and briefly served as a stage at the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts, before heading to its permanent home in Holyoke.

Fiocchi points to the beautiful triple-glazed exterior French doors that will look out on a small deck: “These are $10,000 doors,” Fiocchi says, “donated to us by R&R Window Contractors in Easthampton. $50,000 worth of siding and exterior materials came to us from rk Miles, a supplier in Hatfield. And Daniel O’Connell’s Sons Construction, from Holyoke, has donated over $100,000 to us for this year and the next four years so that we are able to buy the tools and equipment for our construction site here at UMass.

Though the house is small, its quality is evident. Most of the materials have low embodied carbon, it’s designed for solar and three types of low carbon or natural insulation is used: hemp (donated by  HempStone), cellulose (donated by Cozy Homes Performance) and repurposed Polyiso (donated by Green Insulation Group). The house, when finally occupied, will make more energy than it uses.

Students in DesignBuild 2023

“One of the things I loved about DesignBuild,” says Ben Leinfelder, a graduate student in the architecture program, “is how diverse all the students were in terms of ages, genders and academic backgrounds. We spent every day together—sweaty and gross, but smiling. We all had discoveries as we learned from our mistakes and saw exactly what was involved in building a house.”

Leinfelder, who ran his own general contracting business for a few years before coming back to UMass Amherst for his Master’s degree, will be doing the tile work in the Paper House’s bathroom and shower, using low-carbon tile that another student in the DesignBuild class tracked down.

“We all had different things to teach each other,” says Leinfelder, “everyone, from the future architects to those who will go into construction had skin in the game and expertise to share.”

The Paper House is getting its final, finishing touches, and then, in late October or early November, a crane will put it on a flatbed trailer for transportation to its final destination in Holyoke.

“It’s great for students in DesignBuild to see how their colleagues across the divide work,” says Fiocchi, “but even more important is that they get to learn why we’re designing and building these high quality, affordable houses.”

Carl Fiocchi consulting the renderings for Paper House

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