If the future of the solar energy industry is in the intellect, talent and creativity of today’s college students, then the industry is in good hands. And there is no better example than the 20 university teams selected to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013 that will be held Oct. 3-13, 2013, at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif.

The Solar Decathlon, a free public event held this year for the first time outside of Washington, D.C., challenges collegiate teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

 “I wanted to recruit the best and the brightest students and challenge them,” states Richard King, director, U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. “I wanted to provide the students with some real hands-on education, and second, I wanted public engagement. Our goal is to bring them together to build a solar village and then judge the homes side-by-side for aesthetics and measure them for performance, as well as make sure the houses really work.”

The genius of the Solar Decathlon is that it inspires and demands that the contestants create unique homes that are aesthetically amazing, technologically advanced and highly energy efficient. A review of the contestant websites—each team has its own site—reveals a fascinating collection of home designs that would easily be featured in the most discerning architectural publications. Some are definitely out there, some are more traditional, but they are all distinctive, elegant and unique in their own way.

Ten of the Solar Decathlon project entries in this article provide a sample of the distinctive design concepts and green characteristics that make all 20 of the contestant homes collectively a work of art and a wonder of sustainability.


The DALE House: “A Home On Rails”

One of the most intriguing home designs is created by the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and California Institute of Technology (Caltech). SCI-Arc/Caltech’s net-zero energy, rail-mounted dwelling system carries the architectural tradition of the American Southwest’s adobe bungalow into the 21st century. This architectural marvel named the DALE house (Dynamic Augmented Living Environment) encompasses all the amenities of a large home into 600 square feet, and in so doing maximizes the quality and craftsmanship of the built home, according to the designers.

The team has taken a holistic approach by creating a home that is radically new in its structure while remaining comfortable, affordable and easy to operate. But the most significant aspect of the home’s design is its ability to move on a mounted rail. The movement, controlled by a proprietary “Engineering System,” happens at many scales as the entire house, its canopy and its interior components are all able to move on the rail system to achieve high levels of energy efficiency, climate control and user comfort.


The Adapt House: “Designed For Versatility”

The Adapt house, designed jointly by the University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College, could find its way into one of the Lone Star State’s more eclectic residential areas—if not now, then in the near future. According to its student designers, “The beauty of the Adapt home is the versatility to be built anywhere. The home is stylish enough to be at home in an urban environment, practical enough for a suburban couple and sturdy enough for rural placement.”

The Adapt home exudes efficiency without compromising its aesthetic values. It produces electricity using bifacial solar collection units that capture solar energy from the top and bottom of the device. Compared to traditional solar panels, these units can recover an additional 30 percent more energy from the secondary bottom facing of the house’s cool roof. By incorporating reflective materials into the roof, more sunlight can be fed into the collectors, improving performance and generating more power.


fluxHome: “A Home for the Masses”

The University of Southern California’s entry, called fluxHome, is focused on the development of a truly accessible, affordable home as a prototype for energy independent, low-cost housing that advances a SoCal model for affordable and efficient housing “for the masses.” fluxHome incorporates off-the-shelf elements with digital fabrication technology to produce an energy-efficient dwelling prototype for the 21st century. Simultaneously, the team is interested in finding solutions to the perpetual shortage of fresh water and will employ strategies that maximize water reuse and conservation.

fluxHome’s sustainable design is motivated by a combination of environmental, cultural and economic factors. Drawing upon regional precedents such as the craftsman bungalow and the courtyard-patio house, fluxHome transforms the pastoral ideal of suburbia with its irrigated lawns and side yards into a set of functional green spaces. It also incorporates vertical gardens for homegrown produce and improving air quality. Utilizing a “smart home automation system,” the house is a thermally responsive envelope that easily opens and closes according to the weather and time of day, modulating sunlight and air, and providing various degrees of shade and privacy. “The home is not only a net-zero prototype, but also a new residential model for Southern California neighborhoods and cities, and for the changing nature of contemporary experience,” say the designers.


Ecohabit House: “Green Roof, Green Wall”

It may be old school to some, but for the decathlon team of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., good, old-fashioned grass plays a significant role in the sustainable design of its Ecohabit House. Adopting the theme “Live, Learn, Grow,” Ecohabit incorporates green wall and green roof design elements by utilizing living plants and growing vegetation. The green roof is composed of 1-inch sedum tiles that function similarly to normal sod. The exterior grass-covered wall helps insulate the house and collects rainwater, which is then used to irrigate plants. The Ecohabit grass also helps reduce air pollution and promotes important ecological functions such as pollination, decomposition and pest control.

Along with the grass covering, Ecohabit addresses sustainability in all facets—from form, through construction and its dynamic use. A key component is the Dow solar shingles on the non-grass portion of the roof, allowing homeowners to utilize every available space to harness the sun’s energy for their homes, creating a net-zero house without looking like a net-zero house.


HARVEST HOME: “A Spiritual Connection”

Called HARVEST HOME, the vision of Team Capitol DC’s project is to explore how “mathematics, nature and the universe cultivate design and structures for human life and a healthy environment.” HARVEST HOME is being created by a team of students from The Catholic University of America, George Washington University and American University. Inspired by nature, its designers say HARVEST HOME is a model for sustainability and a catalyst for design that “signifies our deep ties with nature for sustenance and spirituality.”

 The home is a structural combination of engineering and science that embraces the simplicity of rectangular architecture described by its design team as “an ecologically responsible home that harvests and replenishes nature’s gifts while promoting health and healing.” The home’s key sustainable components include harvesting energy through the collection of heat from solar panels and appliances; harvesting sunlight through the use of a photovoltaic array and a solar thermal system; harvesting water by using a rain-screen and reusing greywater to replenish the landscape; harvesting materials through the use of reused and reclaimed building components; harvesting vegetation with sustainable garden and landscape elements; and harvesting fresh air through the use of natural ventilation.


ECHO: “A Home for Echo Boomers”

If you are interested in a solar-powered home that would make a great cabin in the wild as well as a comfortable home in town, this is it. Created by Team Ontario, made up of students from Queen’s University, Carleton University and Algonquin College, the design of the ECHO house was inspired by the vast Canadian landscape that serves as a metaphor for this rustic structure.

As an affordable, net-zero family home, the goal of the ECHO house is to create a functional and livable starter home that strikes a balance between engineering and architecture and sets a higher standard of sustainable living. ECHO is a 940-square-foot house that incorporates aspects of the traditional family home with modern technologies such as predictive shading, vacuum insulated panels, real-time energy monitoring, passive design, an integrated mechanical system and a user-friendly mobile application. The ECHO house also features use of hybrid materials that reduce the environmental impact of construction and provide a healthy environment for the occupants. “It is our sincere hope that our home will represent a new paradigm for our generation—an evolved way of living where net-zero homes are desired and carried forth as the norm rather than the ideal,” says the design team. 


SHADE: “A Home for Abandoned Lots”

Designed jointly by the Arizona State University and The University of New Mexico, SHADE (Solar Homes Adapting for Desert Equilibrium) is a home inspired by the unique surrounding of the southwestern desert environment. The two schools collaborated with the best and brightest of their architecture and engineering students to create a house that addresses the unique challenges presented by the suburban sprawl of Phoenix, Albuquerque and other Southwest cities.

Specifically, the SHADE home is designed to address an issue faced by most American cities: the constraint of suburban sprawl and the use of empty infill lots. Behind the team’s concept is the idea that by building environmentally sound homes on overlooked and abandoned urban lots, cities can conserve and revitalize once-thriving desert landscapes while making room for a growing population. The most distinct exterior feature of the home is the independent solar canopy that incorporates the photovoltaic system into a design element that provides functional shade for the home. With its unique home, the team hopes to “encourage a new direction for affordable, reconfigurable homes while encouraging biodiversity for a healthier ecosystem and peace of mind.”


START.HOME: “Inspired by the Auto Industry”

Stanford University has brought together a team of committed student engineers and entrepreneurs to design a house that they hope will not only make its mark in the competition, but also has the potential to be an effective housing model in the future. According to the design team, the key inspiration for the Start.Home is the auto industry. “The automotive industry is streamlined and efficient with high-quality control standards, producing products that are guaranteed to not only function seamlessly but also look fantastic,” explain the designers.

The Stanford team says its Start.Home will provide energy efficiency at the push of a button for a new generation of environmentally conscious homeowners. The heart of the home is the core, which flawlessly integrates the mechanical room, bathroom, laundry and the appliance wall of the kitchen into one unit that can easily be manufactured and shipped across the country. The house design will also emphasize innovation in modular architecture and advancements in energy controls for intuitive building management. “Every component of the house will be optimized for customizability, affordability and lifetime value,” the designers say.


AIR HOUSE: “Designed for Czech Living”

The AIR HOUSE, conceived as a prototype for future housing that is Affordable, Innovative and Recyclable (AIR), is Czech Technical University’s first entry into the Solar Decathlon. The design inspiration is rooted in a specifically Czech tradition of spending weekends in the countryside “and this is where we imagine the AIR HOUSE.” The house offers a small scale with an intensively used outdoor living area. Due to its simple foundations, small size and uncomplicated form, the designers say the house can be built in an average-sized Czech backyard. In fact, the AIR HOUSE is the smallest Solar Decathlon house and is designed as a zero-energy house.

Promoting the home’s energy efficiency is the “house within a house” concept that is based on the team’s design principle of “two skins.” The first skin is a thermal insulation envelope of the living area that is formed by massive wood panels in combination with natural wood fiber that serves as thermal insulation. The second skin is a wooden canopy that protects the first skin from thermal stress caused by the sun and the wind, and it also generates electric energy and hot water via photovoltaic and solar panels.


The Phoenix House: Designed for Disasters

The University of Kentucky has joined forces with University of Louisville and Ball State University to design a low-cost, solar-powered house that is intended to be used as disaster relief housing. “With the Phoenix House, the hope is to return to a life better than before. The Phoenix is a shining symbol of rebirth.”

The structure of Phoenix House is based on a modular system that allows for speed of construction, quality control, living space expansion and customization. Also designed for more normal living, the home features outdoor spaces for socializing, including a large porch, a generous deck for dining out and a private patio. Energy-wise, the home benefits from daylighting and superior ventilation, insulation, energy-efficient appliances, LED lighting, a heat-pump hot water heater, and energy recovery ventilator (ERV). It also incorporates a greywater recycling system and the use of reclaimed and/or recycled materials. Although designed with disaster relief in mind, Phoenix House embraces cost-effective architecture that appeals to most home buyers, particularly to more progressive households interested in green buildings and energy self-sufficiency.