Which One Of These Student-Designed Solar Houses Will Be The Home Of The Future?

From aquaponic gardens to wrap-around solar panels, today’s college students are envisioning the future of sustainable building.

The Solar Decathlon–the Department of Energy’s biennial solar house building competition–starts up again this October, and it looks like the homes on display will be as creative as ever.


All designed by students and all energy self-sufficient, the homes give a glimpse of what could become mainstream in home-building in the next few years.

Richard King, who launched the first Solar Decathlon back in 2002, says there have been a lot of changes since the early days. The houses back then tended to be functional; they tended to incorporate solar panels as an afterthought to the design; and they didn’t have the fancy technology we have now, including smart home control systems and intelligent windows.

“Now it’s all about how you design beauty and architecture into these houses. Then, they were just sticking solar panels up on roofs in any direction you can imagine,” he says. In 2002, seven of the 14 solar water heaters installed didn’t work properly.

King, who still directs the contest, says many of the homes in the 2015 batch nod to California’s drought, even though water conservation isn’t an explicit part of the brief. “You’re going to see an emphasis on water conservation because of the competition is in Southern California [in Irvine], where it’s a precious commodity almost more than energy,” he says.

For example, the house designed by the University of Texas at Austin and Technical University of Munich reuses greywater and captures rainwater. It has its own under-deck system that purifies and stores water for drinking or use in the garden, and it also incorporates an aquaponic system for growing food. The teams call it the “first water-independent home in Austin.”

This year, the houses must also be able to charge up an electric vehicle, so it can be driven at least 25 miles a day. The idea is to encourage architects to think about how to incorporate EVs, so solar systems can handle the extra load and so that they can begin to think about ways EVs and houses might interact. For example, cars could become back-up power sources during blackouts or be set to charge up when the sun is at its peak.


The Decathlon is made up of 10 tests covering everything from engineering to affordability. There are 14 teams (Yale just pulled out) and a $250,000 cap on the amount the teams can spend (this was introduced four years ago after budgets started exploding).

These days, the solar panels aren’t necessarily on the roof. Several like the one from the University at Buffalo and The State University of New York incorporate solar superstructures that wrap around the houses (this one too). Separation makes maintaining the panels easier and allows more shading, a key consideration in somewhere like Irvine.

The 2013 contest was won by a team from Austria, but the role of foreign teams has been minimized this time around. That’s partly to avoid having to transport homes over long distances and partly because the foreign teams have been outshining the domestic ones for several years. This year, they can still participate but only in collaboration with an American team. “In years past, these foreign teams have come and beat the pants off the American teams and then they run back to their home countries,” King says. “I want technology transfer. So we get them to work with an American team and build it here and not ship it.”

That sounds slightly unfair to our foreign friends (it’s not their fault they keep winning), but the contest should be pretty interesting anyway.


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.


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