Skip Navigation to Main Content
Photo of Solar Decathlon Director Richard King being interviewed by a videographer.

Solar Decathlon Blog - Solar Decathlon 2015

Below you will find Solar Decathlon news from the Solar Decathlon 2015 archive, sorted by date.

Crowder College and Drury University Aim To Withstand Tornadoes With ShelteR3

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

Tornadoes are common in Missouri. But the twister that hit Joplin, Missouri, on May 22, 2011, provided special motivation for the Crowder College and Drury University team’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 project. That monster storm, packing winds greater than 200 mph, killed 161 people and caused billions of dollars in damage near Crowder College’s campus, which is only 80 miles from Drury University in Springfield, Missouri. Although tornadoes are common, natives don’t take their destructive power lightly.

“Part of what engaged so many students at our schools is the fact that we are attacking a real-world problem that has directly affected the families of some of us involved. That acts as a real motivator,” says decathlete Evan Melgren, a Springfield native who graduated from Drury in December.

Photo of a group of smiling people.

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

“We wanted to reflect the design imperative we learned about in the wake of the Joplin tornado,” says Melgren.

The team seeks “to lessen the damage next time”—a certainty in a state that averages 27 tornadoes yearly.

Early on, an advisor who had been part of the Joplin recovery effort explained an approach of a trio of actions: response, recovery, and resistance to future storms. Says Melgren, “We latched on to those three ‘R words,’ and came up with ShelteR3,” which is pronounced “shelter cubed.”

The team tested various materials and researched the effects of high winds on structures.

“We are all students working through these issues for the first time,” says Melgren. “But that’s what this opportunity affords students to do. We are confident that the house can withstand some pretty nasty blows.”

Computer-generated illustration of a modern house.

ShelteR3, the project from Crowder College and Drury University, is designed to resist a storm like the tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri, in 2011. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 Crowder College and Drury University team)

A key to the team’s approach is layers of resistance—starting with an aluminum and composite fence, the first layer of defense against storm shrapnel. The exterior of the house itself is made of a fiber cement cladding, and underneath that is a sheet of polycarbonate along with a strong frame made of thicker materials than normal. Steel rods, hidden in the walls, attach the floor more securely to the ceiling to further strengthen the structure against wind pressure. The team added storm doors and windows with coverings to resist a storm’s fury. Parapets on the roof protect the solar panels, lessening the chances of them blowing away.

The project is not only intended to resist a storm. The team also believes this type of house could aid storm recovery efforts. Emergency crews could quickly bring one in to provide resilient off-grid shelter with minimal assembly—something lacking in devastated Joplin.

Crowder, which competed in Solar Decathlon 2002 and 2005, boasts strong construction management and solar engineering programs.

“They reached out to us [Drury] to help with architectural design and communication,” Melgren says, and now the two institutions have about 40 active decathletes.

Melgren says a spring build session was not only fun but also “a real team-bonding experience, kneeling shoulder-to-shoulder with teammates hammering nails.”

After the Solar Decathlon, the team expects that ShelteR3 will return to the Drury campus for about a year and then go to the Crowder campus to join the two previous Solar Decathlon houses. And although nobody can say for certain how the structure would fare against a massive tornado like the one that struck Joplin, Melgren says, “Our improvements to the design of the house are definitely major steps in the right direction.”

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

New York City College of Technology Finds Strength in Diversity for Its DURA Urban House

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

People from many nations arrive in New York City to pursue the American Dream. The New York City College of Technology team embodies this spirit in its U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 project, called DURA—an acronym for Diverse, Urban, Resilient, and Adaptable.

“A lot of our work has been inspired by our location,” says decathlete Evgenia Gorovaya, a sophomore studying environmental planning and math. “The qualities of diversity and being urban go hand-in-hand because City Tech [New York City College of Technology] is one of the most diverse colleges in the United States. And a lot of different mindsets went into developing our design.”

Photo of a group of young people.

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

As a result of all the varied cultural input, she says, “We made it so that in an urban setting, this house could fit almost anyone.”

And just as the Stevens Institute of Technology drew upon 2012’s Hurricane Sandy to shape its 2015 Solar Decathlon project, so, too, did the DURA team.

“[DURA] was our response to that,” says Gorovaya, who experienced the storm’s aftereffects with her family in coastal Brooklyn.

The slender, 24-ft. by 50-ft. house is suitable for single family living on a small city lot. However, the wood-frame structure is also stackable and can be configured as a four-unit complex. The facade has an integrated vertical solar array, and strategic window openings are part of its tight building envelope. DURA also includes a smart mechanical system that harvests waste heat for net-zero living.

Computer-generated illustration of a modern house in an urban setting.

New York City College of Technology’s DURA house is a model for post-disaster housing that can meet the unique needs of a high-density urban environment. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 New York City College of Technology team)

“We maximize the usage of space,” Gorovaya says.

The group is assembling DURA in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in preparation for the competition this fall in Irvine, California. All of this is a novel learning experience for the 60 or so undergraduates on the team because this is City Tech’s first entry into the Solar Decathlon. The team does, however, have the benefit of a faculty advisor who worked on another school’s entry for a past Solar Decathlon.

Gorovaya, who joined the team last fall under a program with the City University of New York, says she was surprised by how much independence team members have to pursue their work.

“Coming in, I expected people to sit me down and say, ‘Here’s what you have to do’—as opposed to you kind of figuring out what is best for the project,” she says.

So being a decathlete has involved real-life problem-solving.

This spring, Gorovaya is looking forward to seeing DURA take shape.

“I imagine it will be a feeling similar to graduation. You’ve been looking forward to it for so long that you can’t believe it is actually here,” she says.

The team hopes that after the Solar Decathlon they can donate the accessible structure to a disabled veteran. And perhaps it will find a permanent address in the Red Hook neighborhood, southeast of Manhattan, adding one more piece to the complex mosaic that is New York City.

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

Florida/Singapore’s Solar Living House Basks in the Sun

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 team from University of Florida, National University of Singapore, and Santa Fe College has set out to design and build a house that, in its own words, “basks in the sun.” And its Solar Living House does exactly that.

The house’s airy design uses post-and-beam construction, which employs heavy timbers, to open the interior and better connect the structure to the outside landscape. The house will consist of five modules, and every module features an opening toward the deck.

“A lot of the space is oriented toward an exterior courtyard,” says decathlete Jiho Choi, a senior architecture major.

Computer-generated illustration of a solar-powered house.

The Solar Living House from the University of Florida, National University of Singapore, and Santa Fe College team reflects a simple-yet-functional style of architecture that has flourished in the Sunshine State for decades. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 Florida/Singapore team)

The design challenges the perception that exterior Florida living is uncomfortable, even in the humid area around Gainesville, where two of the team’s schools are located. Instead, the project allows decathletes to showcase what Choi calls “the Florida vernacular,” a simple yet functional style of architecture that has flourished in the Sunshine State for decades. The Florida/Singapore team is adding a solar energy twist in its update, along with an emphasis on energy efficiency.

Preplanning has been key to this undertaking. Choi and some other upperclassmen have used architectural 3-D modeling software to create a detailed furniture plan and accurate construction documents. They fashioned a 1-in.-to-1-ft scale model of the project that shows precisely where all the posts, beams, and framing are located.

“The model looked really good and is helping us with construction,” Choi says.

Photo of a group of people.

Members of the University of Florida, National University of Singapore, and Santa Fe College team gather at the Orange County Great Park on Jan. 9. (Credit: Cliff Wallace/Orange County Great Park Corp.)

One feature that contributes to the house’s efficiency is the “wet core” module, which includes all the mechanical functions and the bathroom in a single unit. By using the construction facilities and expertise of Santa Fe College, which has a strong construction and technical education program, the team will be able to test the systems before shipping the house to the competition site in Irvine, California. It wants to ensure that the house functions well in both the Florida and California climates.

“We are trying to make the process as smooth as possible. That way, we can fine-tune all the details,” says decathlete Gabby Heffernan. “It’s a great design tactic to achieve the utmost efficiency possible.”

As the project progresses, students from the National University of Singapore, who visited Gainesville in 2014 to work on the design, will return this summer to help with construction. Once Solar Living House is finished and trucked to the Orange County Great Park, the team will connect the five modules—and be ready to compete.

Overall, Choi says that the approximately 100-person Florida/Singapore team has been able to handle communication issues smoothly because they share a common vision.

And together, they’re hoping to bask in the accolades that the Solar Living House earns—and then bring the house to a permanent site in Florida as an example of what is possible.

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

Stevens Pioneers a Post-Hurricane Sandy World With SURE HOUSE

Wednesday, 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

Monday, 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.