Solar Decathlon winner creates sustainable building material
Julee Herdt knows what it means to be a winner, and she loves coming up with outside-the-box environmental innovations.
She was the architecture faculty lead in back-to-back wins a decade ago for the University of Colorado in the prestigious U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition. No other university in the world has won back-to-back Solar Decathlons.
During spring semester 2014, her Green Tech Studio students competed in Herdt’s “Eco-Furniture Design Competition.”
Using a sustainable building material called “BioSIPs board,” which Herdt invented using waste fibers, and combining BioSIPs board with natural, salvage and repurposed materials, the students designed and created eco-furniture. Their furniture demonstrated that throw-away materials can be repurposed for beauty, function and strength. (“BioSIPs” combines the word “Bio” meaning “living” and “SIPs,” which is the acronym for “structural insulated panels.”)
“[The students] are using these materials in ways that are visually profound,” said Herdt. “They have done things I haven’t thought about doing. They are smart, and I learn from them!”
The students are following the lead of a mentor who is passionate about creating a better future for the environment. “Julee and her students continue to lead in innovating functional, beautiful products based on sustainable materials and building practices,” said Dean Mark Gelernter, College of Architecture and Planning. “Julee is our hero.”
Herdt’s commitment to sustainable building can be traced back to her childhood in Kentucky. As a young girl, she loved building tree houses.
“I used whatever lumber and nails I could drag into the woods,” she said. “It was dangerous. I had a few tetanus shots.”
She didn’t have much money to spend on construction, so she used whatever she could scavenge. That was her first lesson in finding strong and economical materials.
“I developed a respect for how materials perform and what they cost,” she said.
Herdt started working for an architecture firm when she was 18 years old and became an architect in the 1980s, a decade of readily available building materials, when her passion for recycling waste materials garnered few fans. But in the 21st century, with hardwoods no longer cheap and widely available, Herdt’s ideas have taken off.
A BETTER BUILDING MATERIAL
After she came to the University of Colorado in the 1990s, Herdt worked with the USDA Forest Products Lab using research and technology to develop BioSIPs board by turning low-grade waste fibers—paper recyclables, agricultural and all types of wood waste—into engineered panels with predictable strengths. The source of the waste can be something as simple as egg cartons, cardboard boxes, newspapers, phone books, scrap wood and plant fibers.
When used in construction and furniture, BioSIPs board solves two environmental challenges.
- It gives solid waste a purpose by turning it into super-strong, petroleum-free building materials.
- It can replace more expensive, environmentally unfriendly petroleum-based materials.
“BioSIPs board does things that building materials are supposed to do and does it with a lighter-weight product that is made from waste,” Herdt said. “We can take things that are throw-aways and turn them into strong materials.”
In 2005, BioSIPs board provided structural insulated wall, floor and roof panels for an affordable and energy-efficient solar-powered house that earned CU its second Solar Decathlon win.
In 2011, through a State of Colorado grant, Herdt completed an entire building, including its interior systems and its furniture, using three and a half tons of waste fibers that had been converted into BioSIPs board. To build the house, Herdt shaped the boards into 3D structural insulated panels for walls, floors and roofs.
“If you tell someone you can build a building out of curbside waste, they look at you and don’t believe you,” Herdt said. “You have to prove it, so that’s what I’ve been doing.”
In 2013, The US Green Building Council honored Herdt’s BioSIPs inventions as Colorado’s “Green Product” of the year.
Herdt has two patents pending, the first architecture patents at the university. One is a co-patent with the USDA Forest Products Lab for the BioSIPs board technology and science. The second patent is for the BioSIPS wall, floor and roof high performance construction system. She has launched her first commercial venture, “BioSIPs, Inc.”
Watch Julee Herdt with her students and you can still see the enthusiasm of a little girl who loved building tree houses. As the students designed and built their capstone project for the eco-furniture competition, Herdt alternated between cheerleader and critic, offering advice to students who were wrestling with the challenges of creating with BioSIPs board and salvaged materials and competing to be named the best project in the class.
In building their furniture, students were required to use replacements to any products containing toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, petroleum resins and other chemicals which have been scientifically linked to serious health and environmental damage.
Among their projects:
- Chris Cadwell built a chair that is 100 percent BioSIPs board. “The design was tricky, but I like the way it looks. It proves you can take flat BioSIPs board and make attractive furniture. It’s so strong you can even sit on the model.”
- Jeffrey Woodruff laminated 250 sheets of BioSIPs board to create legs for a bench that will be topped by a 9-foot piece of salvaged maple. “We spend a lot of time designing on a computer. I just wanted to build something beautiful with my hands.”
- Sarah Williams developed a piece of furniture using BioSIPs board as a tabletop. “Julee has been awesome, amazing, unbelievably supportive. She supports any weird thing you want to do!”
- Caitlin Pfarr experimented with BioSIPs board in ways that Herdt had not even thought about doing. “I’m interested in all aspects of design, but I never have had the opportunity to physically make a piece of furniture.”
AND THE WINNER IS …
During the last week of classes, the students’ work was juried by architects, furniture industry and business professionals, and representatives from the American Institute of Architects and the U.S. Green Building Council. The judges looked at design, green qualities, inventiveness, ease of assembly, strength to weight, affordability and marketability, and they asked each student questions about their projects, processes, and designs. Herdt also had the jurors judge the students’ “bravery” by asking them what they had done to challenge themselves in new ways.
On the final day of class, with the eco-furniture on display in the College of Architecture and Planning, the winners were announced:
Woodruff laughed as he suggested that perhaps his project might end up in the Kirkland Museum “right next to a Frank Gehry chair,” but he also admitted that he wasn’t really motivated by the competition as much as he was by the experience of working with Herdt and other members of his class.
“There wasn’t a moment in the workshop when we weren’t having a blast,” he said.
For Herdt, the class competition does more than educate a group of students. It helps advance the potential for BioSIPs board in furniture design and construction, and it inspires her to continue to work toward a more healthful, sustainable future.
“I thrive on my students’ energy and support,” she said. “It’s a win-win.”