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Solar Decathalon 2015

14 teams of architecture and engineering students gathered in Irvine, California recently to show off how their homes can change the world for the better.

Every other year the Department of Energy sponsors the Solar Decathalon. It is a competition amongst architecture schools to design and build homes that not only use solar, but also rank on a series of 10 criteria.

This year our vacation coincided with the Decathalon and when I realized that we were going to be just a short 1.5 hours away, we scheduled an extra day so that we could go.

It was a great experience, to see the homes up close and to feel the students vibrating with excitement about what they were able to accomplish.​

Each Decathalon team is judged on how well they do in each of the following categories :

  1. Architecture
  2. Market Appeal
  3. Engineering
  4. Communications
  5. Affordability
  6. Comfort Zone
  7. Appliances
  8. Home Life
  9. Commuting
  10. Energy Balance

The Winning Team Produces a house that:

  • Is affordable, attractive, and easy to live in
  • Maintains comfortable and healthy indoor environmental conditions
  • Supplies energy for cooking, cleaning, entertainment, and commuting
  • Provides adequate hot water
  • Produces as much or more energy than it consumes.

information from the solar decathalon website.

Scoring big on each of the ten items is a huge challenge!

Not only did they design the projects, they also built them and figured out how to transport them to Irvine.  They did this in the span of two years.  It’s mind boggling and impressive.

The thing that I found interesting was that the houses were focused heavily on market appeal but not the geeky under belly.  The under belly was certainly a driver in all of the designs, but it was not advertised as the star attraction.  ​

I think this is the right approach, because one thing I’ve learned is that as much as I think the geeky underbelly is important, interesting and fascinating’s not what everyone is interested in.  It’s the job of architects, engineers and contractors to figure that stuff out.  Ultimately a home it needs to be like an iphone, easy to use and aesthetically appealing.​

2015 Solar Decathalon Winner

The winner was the SURE house by Stevens Institute of Technology.  It’s an impressive project and my congratulations go out to the students and team that put this home together.

The house is designed as a Passive House, which most of you know is close to my heart.  I also think this has one of the more mature executions of form and understanding of how a building is put together.

Speaking of geeky underbelly, they had a wall section showing how the exterior walls were built.  I may have missed it at the other houses, but this is the only one that caught my attention.  This is a classic passive house wall assembly, one that works well in all climates.

It looks complicated, but when you break it down it’s pretty basic.

It’s a standard frame wall with a layer of rigid insulation on the exterior and an extra service cavity on the interior.  The Floor​ is a standard insulated floor. The insulation is rockwool which is a great solution because it:

  • is fire proof
  • insect proof
  • water resilient
  • it doesn’t sag
  • it is easily installed
  • and moisture can move through it without getting trapped in the wall.

The Stevens house was designed to survive a storm like Sandy.  All of the windows can be buttoned up to protect the glass.  The South facing windows on this house have a folding shutter (see guy who is pointing), it’s both protection from weather and also a solar shade.  It’s a nice element architecturally as well.


It’s great that the students are exploring the edge of possibilities, but sometimes the edge ends up being really complicated.  I wouldn’t want to ask a plumber to do any repairs on this system.

plumbing system: team orange’s Casa Del Sol

I’m a fan of keeping it simple, and fortunately there are simple systems today that work really well in a high performance home.  Things like mini-split heat pumps for heating and cooling and heat pump water heaters and heat pump dryers for the water and the wash.

Second Place Winner

I’m a little embarrassed that we didn’t make it into this one.  The lines were long and we were hot and it looked even hotter with all the glass.  I didn’t even pick it as a winner before going.  Let’s just say there is something going on here that I missed!

Third Place Winner

This home was beautifully executed and spatially felt really nice. They took the time to think through details, proportions and finishes.  Each of the houses was small at under 1,000 square feet and it’s a challenge to make a small space feel large, but they easily accomplished that with higher ceilings and expanding the living area to the outdoor patio.

Fourth Place Winner

Texas teamed with a German College called the Technische Universitaet Muenchen and they came in third.  I thought this had great curb appeal. Their home had two pods with ample space for outdoor living and I can see it being a good fit in Texas.

Eighth Place Winner

The ShelteR3 house by the Crowder/Drury team was designed to withstand a tornado.  The team is from Missouri, and these students more than most understood the importance of building for disaster.

I was surprised that I liked the house as much as I did.  I wasn’t drawn to the house initially.  It’s the checkerboard thing.   If the screen shown in the image above had been installed I’m pretty sure I would have been an instant fan.  I love the contrast of the simple lines revealing the surprise of the checkerboard.  They may not had enough time to include that.

Spatially, this house felt great and as I listened to the students talk about their design I really began to appreciate the house for both it’s design and it’s ability to weather a storm.

The house has extra solar panels on the roof and can share a little juice with the neighbors in the event of a storm.​

All of the teams did an amazing job.  Even the teams that faced challenges were incredible.  Just imagine designing a high performance house that has to meet the tough 10 point criteria, doing the work to be able to transport it across the country and assemble it in 7 days and then when it’s all done taking it all apart again to send back home and re-assembling it somewhere else.