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Harvard Graduates Devise Community-Scale Geothermal Energy Solution

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Harvard Graduates Devise Community-Scale Geothermal Energy Solution

Over 150 students sought to find creative solutions to common industry problems during Ivory Innovation’s annual Hack-A-House competition.

Quinn Purcell, Managing Editor
November 30, 2022
Boston, Massachusetts building at daytime
A Boston, Mass. neighborhood acts as a case study for Team Beckwith’s community-driven geothermal solution. Photo courtesy Jayden Burdick

Every year, Ivory Innovations hosts a 24-hour competition for students across the nation, with the goal of finding innovative solutions to address the housing affordability crisis. Introducing: Hack-A-House.

This year, over 155 students from 21 universities participated in Hack-A-House. The teams tackled solutions for homelessness, sustainability, or affordable homeownership; Ivory Innovations granted a winner for each category.

One team from Harvard stood out from the 35 others. As winner of the Environmental Solutions and Construction Technology category, Team Beckwith developed a proposal for district-wide geothermal energy implementation.


The issue of increasing energy-efficiency in existing buildings is a topical one—something that Team Beckwith utilized in their case study for a particular 49-house community in South Boston.

The team’s idea started with looking at Boston-related problems, such as increasing tenancy rates and inefficient triple-decker homes. As tenants of such buildings themselves, Team Beckwith (comprising Harvard Graduate School of Design students Palak Gupta, Priyanka Kar, Sanjana Shiroor, and Yimeng Ding) personally experienced certain system inefficiencies.

The goal? Find an energy-efficient solution that benefits homeowners and tenants alike.

Economies of scale graphic geothermal energy
Team Beckwith devised a geothermal system that helps itself grow through economies of scale. Photo courtesy Team Beckwith, Ivory Innovations

Much like what we know to be true since the creation of the assembly line, efficiencies increase with scale. So, Team Beckwith devised a geothermal system that helps itself grow through economies of scale—including incentives for community members involved.

The proposed solution:

  • Build geothermal pipes buried in the community’s shared backyard space.
  • Implement tax incentives to meet local and federal government’s sustainable development goals (inspired by current incentives in places like California and Arizona).
  • Garner funding from public and private partnerships for the block energy model.
  • Create a sense of shared social responsibility among homeowners and tenants of the community, both improving their housing conditions while reducing costs of heating/cooling.

The team finds that the geothermal solution works well in Boston, due to the advantages of the climate’s consistent ground heat. (A solar-focused solution may work in places that are always sunny, but that won’t work year-round in Boston). Additionally, geothermal systems can last four to five times longer than conventional equipment, according to the team.

Graph of geothermal energy lifetime comparison
Geothermal is able to consistently produce energy from the heat below the Earth's surface. Photo courtesy Team Beckwith, Ivory Innovations

That doesn’t mean other climate areas can’t benefit from geothermal energy, though. The Earth’s ground heat has very little fluctuation in temperature when compared to the atmosphere around us. In that case, geothermal is able to consistently produce energy from the heat below—there’s no need to worry about sunny days for solar, or high winds for turbines, to generate electricity.

“The novelty of geothermal energy is there,” Team Beckwith says. “The reason it’s not invested in is the capital, and the scale.”

From their current proposition, the team believes that community-wide geothermal implementation can go from neighborhood, to district-, city-, and state-wide scale. By doing this, each level becomes more cost-effective than the last.

The three winning Hack-A-House teams were each granted $3,000 by Ivory Innovations, but Team Beckwith isn't stopping there. The team intends to do further research and revise their 24-hour-made plan, and are already looking for connections to make their proposal a reality.

Founded in 2017, Ivory Innovations is a nonprofit organization dedicated to catalyzing innovative solutions in housing affordability—promoting inspiring students and innovators along the way.

Hack-A-House brings together students of all disciplines—architecture, business, urban planning, and more—to find creative, novel solutions to industry problems. To read the press release featuring the winners of each category, visit the website here.

For more on market-makers and innovators, read it here on Utopia.

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