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Solar Decathlon News Blog

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon News Blog provides regular updates about Solar Decathlon news and events. Learn what's happening now, and let us know what you think by leaving a comment.

Stevens Pioneers a Post-Hurricane Sandy World With SURE HOUSE

April 8, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

When Hurricane Sandy crashed into the East Coast in October 2012, it caused an estimated $65 billion in damages along with untold human misery. But something positive has come from that disaster. The superstorm inspired the Stevens Institute of Technology’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 project.

“Sandy devastated a lot of the coast, including Hoboken, New Jersey, where Stevens is located. And many of the students involved on the team are from New York and New Jersey and were affected, or had families affected, by power outages and damage from the storm,” says decathlete A.J. Elliott, a Stevens graduate student.

“We knew at that point that we wanted to address not only sustainability but also resiliency with our design—to combat rising sea levels and increased storm activity,” he says.

Computer-generated illustration of a solar-powered house.

Inspired by Hurricane Sandy, SURE HOUSE takes a new direction in storm-resilient coastal housing by combining the architectural feel that characterizes the Jersey Shore with 21st-century technology and fiber-composite materials repurposed from the boat-building industry. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 Stevens Institute of Technology team)

The 40-member team came up with a play on words for its Jersey Shore house: SURE HOUSE. The name derives from “SUstainability” plus “REsiliency” and is intended to reflect a structure that can mitigate climate change as well as survive the real effects of global warming such as savage storms.

But the team didn’t want to follow the typical post-Sandy trends.

“The general reaction to Hurricane Sandy was to put houses up on stilts. That’s still the practice, so these homes don’t have porches—and feel out of place,” Elliott says.

Photo of a group of students.

Members of the Stevens Institute of Technology team gather at the Orange County Great Park on Jan. 9. (Credit: Carol Laurie/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

This is especially noticeable because the Jersey Shore comprises tight-knit communities with towns that typically have open spaces for people to gather. Stilts stifle that characteristic.

By pioneering a different way, “we’re trying to develop a prototype where we don’t necessarily have to do that,” he says. “We wanted to maintain this ’70s and ’80s architectural feel that is the Jersey Shore in combination with 21st-century technology.”

The 1,000-ft2 living space flows to an exterior deck. Although replicating the cottage style on the exterior, the core building principles result in 90% less energy use through “Passive House” techniques (a German concept stressing tight building envelopes to reduce air conditioning demands), net zero-energy use with solar power, and a resilient energy hub.

Photo of two people taking measurements with surveying equipment on a tripod.

At the Orange County Great Park, Stevens Institute of Technology team members survey the lot where they will build SURE HOUSE for Solar Decathlon 2015. (Credit: Cliff Wallace/Orange County Great Park Corp.)

That hub is key.

“Solar arrays won’t work when power is out unless you have a battery backup system,” Elliott says—but those backups aren’t allowed in the Solar Decathlon.

Instead, Stevens is equipping SURE HOUSE with a special, commercially available inverter that can continue to produce power even after a blackout. The house will also have an outdoor USB charging outlet that allows neighbors to come by and charge their portable devices.

“That way, they’re not without communication shortly after a storm, when there are a lot of emergencies to be dealt with,” he notes.

And as a final addition, the Stevens team is drawing from the marine industry for its technologies and materials, using composites that can repel storm damage as well as everyday salt water.

Solving a local problem appeals to Elliott because even though he was in Philadelphia when the hurricane hit—working for a utility dealing with some of the storm aftermath—he grew up in New York City.

Being in his first Solar Decathlon is also a dream come true. He began tracking the event in high school and visited his first competition in 2007—and he’s been to every one since.

“This is my first go-round, but Stevens’ third,” he says.

It was the school’s participation in 2013 that drew him to enroll in its Product Architecture and Engineering program, which is deeply involved in the Solar Decathlon.

The team hopes that after this year’s Solar Decathlon, SURE HOUSE will find a permanent home on the Jersey Shore—where it can serve as a model for others who want to sustain traditions in the face of changes that threaten to erode not only beaches but also the fabric of community life.

Ernie Tucker is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.

Take a Peek at the Solar Decathlon 2015 Competition Houses

March 30, 2015

By Carol Laurie

Curious what the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 teams are planning for the competition? Can’t wait until October to see their houses in person? You’re in luck. We’ve posted a treasure trove of information about the team houses—including computer-animated walkthroughs, renderings, and video interviews of the decathletes discussing their projects—on the Solar Decathlon website.

“The team walkthroughs and renderings introduce the public to each team’s house design,” says Joe Simon, Solar Decathlon 2015 competition manager. “This material also helps the teams articulate their competition strategies and what makes their houses unique.”

Graphic of an interior living area.

A computer-generated rendering of DURA (diverse, urban, resilient, and adaptable), the New York City College of Technology Solar Decathlon 2015 house. (Courtesy of the New York City College of Technology Solar Decathlon 2015 team)

The walkthroughs, less than 1.5 minutes each, move viewers from the outside through the inside of each house, often accompanied by audio that describes the design philosophy. The renderings include (at minimum) two exterior views, one birds-eye perspective, and two interior views of each competition house. Recorded in Irvine, California, during the Design Development Review Workshop in January, the team videos capture students’ enthusiasm for their projects and feature footage from the walkthroughs and renderings.

These solar-powered, energy-efficient houses represent diverse target markets, technological innovations, and design approaches. Take a look to see what the Solar Decathlon 2015 teams plan to unveil on Oct. 8 at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California.

Carol Laurie is the communications manager for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

Solar Decathlon Welcomes Edison International as Host Utility Sponsor

March 23, 2015

By Carol Laurie

Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison, is returning as a sustaining sponsor of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon by becoming the 2015 competition’s host utility sponsor.

“Edison International recognizes the skills needed for Southern California Edison’s future workforce. For this reason, we focus some of our educational funding on programs that prepare students to excel in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields,” says Ted Craver, chairman and CEO of Edison International. “The Solar Decathlon provides hands-on learning that motivates young people to pursue opportunities in STEM, which is why Edison International is proud to support this award-winning competition.”

Photo of a man with a computer tablet demonstrating something to another man and a woman.

At Solar Decathlon 2013, Ted Craver, chairman and CEO of Edison International (left), and Tammy Tumbling, director of philanthropy and community investment of Southern California Edison (center), visit with a University of Southern California team member. Edison International returns as a Solar Decathlon sustaining sponsor in 2015. (Credit: Eric Grigorian/U.S. Department of Energy)

Edison International’s sponsorship provides much of the event’s infrastructure and furnishings (such as tents, tables, chairs, and signage) as well as a temporary interconnection of bidirectional electricity flow between Southern California Edison’s electric grid and the Solar Decathlon village microgrid. In addition, Edison International will reach out to Southern California Edison customers to educate and encourage them to attend the Solar Decathlon public exhibit and provide staff members the opportunity to serve as volunteers during the public exhibit.

“We’re so pleased to welcome Edison International back as a sustaining sponsor in 2015,” says Richard King, director of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. “Its generous support makes so much possible. With Edison International’s help, excess energy generated by the team houses will be supplied to the Orange County community—and when demand for energy exceeds supply, the village will be able to continue operating.”

Edison International, which was also a sustaining sponsor of Solar Decathlon 2013, plans to display Southern California Edison’s Hybrid-Powered Mobile Energy Unit within the Solar Decathlon village. This traveling exhibit will feature program literature, educational materials, and energy efficiency technologies and displays.

Carol Laurie is the communications manager of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

California State University, Sacramento, Builds Reflect Home To Showcase Its City

March 16, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

Sacramento is nicknamed the City of Trees, so it made sense for the California State University, Sacramento, team to showcase nature in its U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 project. The team’s Reflect Home does just that by embracing the city’s sense of expansive greenery.

The team examined elements throughout the city to come up with a contemporary design that combines indoor and outdoor living spaces.

“We wanted to reflect Sacramento not only in the house’s architecture but its openness, including the California Great Room, which transitions to the back yard,” says decathlete Rosni Pann, the team’s project executive. “Everything about the home really shows what Sacramento is about and how we approach things. We’re warm and inviting. That’s Sacramento.”

Graphic of a modern indoor living area that opens to the outside.

Reflect Home’s California Great Room features contemporary design that combines indoor and outdoor living spaces. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 California State University, Sacramento, team)

While incorporating features throughout the Reflect Home to make it both ultra-efficient and affordable, the team’s focus was on ensuring a seamless transition from indoors to outdoors.

“We really wanted to bring the outside in. It does this in an elegant way,” Pann says.

Upon entering, visitors can see not only the spacious living room and kitchen but also the back yard, which is separated from the interior by accordion doors.

“In Sacramento, we’re fortunate to have the weather so that we can use that outdoor space most of the year. We’re a community that loves to be outside, to have family and friends over. But you can also have privacy by closing the doors,” says Pann.

Graphic of a modern house with solar panels on the roof.

The California State University, Sacramento, Reflect Home showcases nature and the Sacramento community’s love of the outdoors. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 California State University, Sacramento, team)

The team plans to begin construction in mid-March on a campus lot. Work could last several months—and then the team hopes to disassemble the house and repeat the process a second time to improve efficiency.

“We don’t want our first time assembling it to be at the competition,” Pann says.

Watching this unfold will also serve as a sort of living laboratory on sustainable construction.

“Because it’s on campus, all the students—and residents of Sacramento—will know what the Solar Decathlon is all about,” Pann says. “We’re encouraging everyone to come by and people in the community to mentor us.”

Learning to integrate a number of disciplines, ranging from marketing to interior design and construction, has been a fascinating process.

“We have so many departments working on this. That’s been one of the most interesting things about this project,” Pann says. “It’s fun to see how all these people are coming together, and everybody wants to bring something.”

The team encountered some headwinds early on in fundraising. But now, with more tangible signs of progress, such as the start of construction, buzz is building. In addition, the strong reputation of the school’s construction management program has helped the decathletes gain support.

Pann, who will graduate this May, has already begun working full-time as a project engineer for a Sacramento building company, which is a job she landed as the result of previous internships in construction.

Now, as they head toward construction, she thinks ahead about seeing the project take shape in Irvine, California, and expects to feel “intense joy, relief, and pride. When we complete this house, it will be amazing.”

And even when it’s part of the Southern California landscape, the Reflect Home will still represent the spirit of Sacramento, always welcoming the outdoors and sharing its warmth for guests.

Ernie Tucker is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.

Missouri University of Science and Technology Adds a Solar Nest

March 2, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

The Missouri University of Science and Technology team is building the latest addition to its campus colony of student-designed, energy-efficient houses. The team is creating a “nest” to compete in Solar Decathlon 2015. After the October competition, the Nest Home—designed for a growing family—will return to the Rolla, Missouri, campus to take its place alongside the school’s 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2013 Solar Decathlon competition houses as part of a student housing and research site.

“Our team has been around so long, it enables us to see the effects of the projects from the past,” says Mary Puleo, a junior from St. Louis who is the Nest Home project manager.

Years of Solar Decathlon participation have enabled the university’s vision to extend beyond the competition to include a range of renewable energy outreach initiatives within the community. The team holds three to six events each month—hosting Scout troops, offering community and student showcases, and spreading the word about sustainable living.

Photo of a group of smiling students.

Members of the Missouri University of Science and Technology team gather at the Orange County Great Park on Jan. 9. (Credit: Carol Laurie/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Puleo says that having a team in so many Solar Decathlons means that “we have a really strong support system.” For example, this year’s team includes several 2013 decathletes who are helping Puleo and about 60 teammates prepare for the 2015 solar showdown in Irvine, California. Students are involved throughout the entire process, from initial proposal through conceptual design and final construction. This experiential learning opportunity allows undergraduates to gain hands-on experience outside the classroom and work closely with both consultants and skilled tradesmen.

The 2015 house is designed to serve a family “from a full nest to an empty nest” and will be built using local recycled materials as much as possible. The core structure consists of three repurposed shipping containers that form a deconstructed triangular space similar to a bird’s nest. Although this open-floor concept is designed to work for a couple and small children in two bedrooms, it also allows the possibility of adding or subtracting recycled containers to modify the living quarters as needed.

Computer-generated illustration of a solar-powered house.

The Nest Home will be constructed of recycled materials, including shipping containers that form a triangular space like a bird’s nest and an exterior clad with used shipping pallets. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 Missouri University of Science and Technology team)

The team’s dedicated approach attracted Puleo when she was a freshman in 2012. Over time, her bonds to the undergraduate decathletes have grown along with her duties.

“It’s great to see others finding the passion for this type of project,” she says. Originally working as director of finance, she took over as project manager in August 2014.

Photo of three people taking measurements with surveying equipment on a tripod.

At the Orange County Great Park, Missouri University of Science and Technology team members survey the lot where they will build the Nest Home for Solar Decathlon 2015. (Credit: Amy Vaughn/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

“Every day, I’m pushing my boundaries,” says the environmental engineering student. “But this is a tremendous opportunity, something regular students don’t experience—and something I’ll always value because it helps you figure out what you want to do in life.”

Puleo says the Nest Home experience will launch fledgling careers in fields that can impact the future and promote sustainability. She’s proud to be part of a long-standing tradition—and a new beginning. The Nest Home crew joins the rest, she says, in the Solar Decathlon experience, which “empowers us to find ways to keep the world going.”

Ernie Tucker is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.