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Solar Decathlon Blog

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Blog provides regular updates about Solar Decathlon news and events.

Mentoring 101: How to Teach College Students What Textbooks Can’t

September 29, 2020

Most colleges don’t offer a course that can teach you how to navigate the real world. Sure, classroom learning provides students with a solid technical foundation in their chosen areas of study, but essential professional skills like negotiation, compromise, and flexibility aren’t covered in most textbooks. For the answers to life’s most challenging questions, you need a mentor.

If there were degrees in Real Life Experience, a group of more than 30 students from Weber State University would earn top honors. These students managed to design and build a six-bedroom, 2,450 square foot home that is powered entirely by the sun and can go off grid for three days—or longer—as part of their Solar Decathlon 2020 senior project.

Jeremy Farner, an associate professor of building design and construction at Weber State University, served as the team’s faculty advisor on the project. Now that he has successfully advised two Solar Decathlon Design Challenge competitions and Weber State’s most recent Build Challenge, there is no doubt he has what it takes to mentor the next generation of green building professionals.

Several students from the WSU build team

Jeremy Farner, fourth from right, stands with students on the Solar Decathlon 2020 Build project team representing the Building Design & Construction, Interior Design, and Construction Management programs in February 2020. Photo by Weber State University

“My role is teaching these students, not just architecture and construction, but real-world resolve to work through problems,” said Jeremy. “Those problem-solving skills are essential to dealing with the challenges that life inevitably throws at you.”

A few guiding principles have helped Jeremy succeed in his role mentoring students throughout the Solar Decathlon. Spoiler alert: it’s not all hand-holding and grading on a curve.

Surrender Control

A desire to guide, but a refusal to lead, helped Jeremy ensure that he was empowering his students to make tough decisions and work hard.

“One thing that was clear from our very first class meeting was that Professor Farner was there to support our efforts, but wasn’t ‘in charge’ of the project,” said Ryan Williams, the Weber State team’s quality control lead. “We had to self-organize and work together more as a team than in any other class.”

Working as a team is easy when everything goes right. However, anyone with the most basic DIY construction experience knows that things tend to go wrong, or at best, not as expected. For Weber State, the team had to shift gears after completing a full year of work. They had done all of the demographic studies, completed the design, and were waiting for their property to be rezoned for higher density units. But when it became uncertain whether they could keep waiting and still complete the project by the competition deadline, they made the tough decision to pull the plug on their original plan.

close up of heavy machinery

Most students probably would never sign up to take a college course titled, “Whenever something could possibly go wrong on a construction site, it might,” but the Weber State Solar Decathlon 2020 Build Team got a lesson on that topic several times. Photo by Weber State University

“My students weren’t happy with that change. They were mad about abandoning so much hard work, but they knew it wasn’t an option to continue,” said Jeremy. “It would have been impossible for them to succeed with all of their eggs in that original basket.”

That difficult decision provided Janae Thomas-Watson, the Weber State team’s project manager, with her most valuable takeaway from the Solar Decathlon Build experience. “I was able to work with a solid group of dedicated folks who were willing to make hard decisions and sacrifices for the benefit of the build,” said Janae. “This shaped my perspective on a future career path because now I know that I need to align myself with a company and team of colleagues that share my same goals.”

Connect with Movers and Shakers

The team began looking for an alternative project to pursue right away. Fortunately, the City of Ogden, where the university is located, had been trying to revitalize neighborhoods where houses have been repossessed, abandoned, or torn down. Because Jeremy already sat on the Ogden City Civic Action Network, he heard about the group’s desire to build an affordable net zero home to showcase for the community.

When Jeremy’s students learned about this opportunity, they shifted right back into high gear. They started fundraising through the university in October, redid all of the project plans in November, and submitted the design for permitting in December.

Project partners who signed on to the project include the City of Ogden, Ogden Civic Action Network, the Davis Technical College, and multiple subcontractors who could ensure the student’s work met industry standards. Backed by various gift amounts from the College of Engineering, Applied Science and Technology, College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, College of Science, Facilities Management, Provost’s Office, Presidents Council, and Student Affairs, the team was able to break ground on January 4, 2020.

“The university administration was a huge supporter for us,” said Jeremy. “They wanted to involve as many students as possible and give back to the community in a significant way because we believe in the value of civic engagement and service learning.”

Share Your Passion

Now that construction on the Quincy Avenue Solar Decathlon house is complete, the team plans to pass along the gift of net zero living to a local resident. After opening the home for a public exhibition in late August 2020, the school will host a randomized auction to select a buyer from among those who submit a qualifying asking price offer. The appraised value of the home is $355,000, and it’s also worth noting that the house’s electric bills should amount to just over $100 over the course of an entire year—including charging an electric vehicle.

The outside of the WSU home

After outfitting Jeremy Farner’s personal home with a solar energy system, ES Solar Contractors stepped up as a local expert willing to provide 39 roof-mounted solar panels for the Weber State team’s Solar Decathlon 2020 Build project. Photo by Weber State University

“A big moment for our team came when the subcontractors started asking if they could buy it. First the framer, then the cabinet guys, the plumber, and our painter,” said Jeremy. “That’s when we knew it was really good.”

There’s only one small catch for the home’s future owner: they must agree to provide two years of utility bills to the university. This will allow Weber State to monitor how their energy modeling matches the home’s actual consumption. In this way, the cycle of giving back continues.

“I grew up around the biz,” said Jeremy. “My grandfather was a general contractor, so I remember telling my parents I wanted to be a wall builder as early as eight years old so I could follow in his footsteps.”

Jeremy’s early dream has now come full circle. He worked as a framer in high school, went to Weber State for undergrad to learn how to be an architectural drafter and designer, was hired as a designer for largest homebuilder in Utah, then completed his master’s research at Purdue in construction management. Now, he is passing along his passion to the next generation by mentoring his students.

“I was initially driven toward architecture, but this project reminded me of the joy that comes from physically creating something that was designed digitally,” said Ryan as he considers his future career plans. “Instead of focusing strictly on design or architecture, I am thinking of more opportunities that could have a meaningful impact and help push the practice of sustainable building.”

Thanks to a great mentor, we’re sure that all of the members of the Weber State Solar Decathlon 2020 Build team will go on to do amazing things in this field. After all, they all have unofficial degrees in Real Life Experience.

Weber State University Team Profile

September 21, 2020

The Net Zero Wildcats of Weber State University, hailing from Ogden, Utah, join us for our first TEAM PROFILE of the 2020 Solar Decathlon! Thanks for taking the time, folks, so let’s get right to the questions.

First, with a team name like that, I have to ask – do you have a mascot?
We do–Waldo the Wildcat!

We have to see a picture of this mascot…
Now, is this your first time participating in the Solar Decathlon?
This is the first time we have participated in the Solar Decathlon Build Challenge. We have previously competed twice in the Race to Zero competition [now called Solar Decathlon Design Challenge].

How many team members do you have right now?
We have had as many as 50 students work on the project, but the current team is comprised of 12 students.

A group photo of the WEBER STATE UNIVERSITY

What is the craziest major among your team members?
Bachelors of Integrated Studies.

I have no idea what that would include, but it sounds pretty interesting. Maybe we can follow up on that! Next, what kind of house are you building?
We’re building a Single Family home.

What inspired the design for your house?
The neighborhood it is in is primarily Craftsman and Bungalow, so we combined the architectural styles to create our version of a craftsman-bungalow.

The coronavirus situation is a worldwide health emergency. How is your team staying connected during COVID?
We stay connected by holding Zoom meetings and site visits with social distancing and face masks.

What will happen to your house once construction is complete?
The home will be sold at the appraised value. We are participating in Solar Decathlon as a Local Build project, so we were not planning to transport our home to the competition location. It was permanently constructed at 2807 Quincy Avenue in Ogden, Utah. The house will be as a private residence.

We are including a provision in the sale that they must allow us to view their electricity bill for a minimum of two years and allow us to make adjustments if the HVAC and solar systems if they are not performing as they were designed.

What other unique information should we know about your team and/or house?
Our website is full of awesome information and photos.

One cool thing is the collaboration that was undertaken on this home with the city, the Ogden Civic Action Network, the University, and our department. It was all funded by the university as a way to give back to the community as well as to provide real world experiences to students. We shifted our design from a duplex in Salt Lake City to this home in November. (The re-zoning was not going to be approved in time to start construction in January). Our team completed the home less than 6 months later!

We’d like to thank the Weber State University team for being part of this event and for joining us to share how they are meeting this challenge. Come back soon for our next team profile!

Sol Haroon is #SDLivingtheDream:
Leading the Future Through Building-Design Efficiency and Renewable Energy Education!

September 15, 2020

Sol completed his BASc (Applied Science) at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and his MS at the Georgia Institute of Technology; he is currently pursuing (part-time) his MBA at the Scheller College of Business at Georgia Tech.

In the latest edition of our #SDLivingtheDream series, we introduce Sol Haroon. An alumnus of the 2018 Design Challenge, Sol pushes boundaries in the renewable energy and building design projects he leads, or contributes to as an engineer. Read on to find out more about Sol’s role in creating the largest Living Building in the Southeast!


Name: Sol Haroon

Year participated in Solar Decathlon: 2018 Design Challenge

University team: Georgia Institute of Technology

Current organization / employer: United Renewables, also pursuing an MBA at Georgia Institute of Technology

Current role: Lead Engineer/Consulting Instructor

More »

Sean Copeland is #SDLivingtheDream:
Revolutionizing Energy-Efficient Commercial Building Through Design!

August 17, 2020

Meet 2017-2018 Design Challenge alumnus Sean Copeland. From Penn State to Solar Decathlon, this two-time SD veteran has always worked with a passion for building design and environmental preservation. With his current position at Arup, he is able to intersect the two through working on carbon-free building construction in Massachusetts. Learn more about how Sean puts his skills to the test toward the green-building industry.


Name: Sean Copeland

Year participated in Solar Decathlon: 2017 and 2018

University team: Penn State University (2017 — Full Circle, 2018 — Ripple)

Current organization / employer: Arup

Current role: Graduate Sustainability Consultant

More »

Farah Naz Ahmad is #SDLivingTheDream:
Building Science Skills — and Communications, too!

July 13, 2020

For the latest in our #SDLivingTheDream series, you’ll meet a 2011 Build Challenge team member whose career has explored several angles of energy-efficient building: lighting retrofits, energy codes, and technical building standards for city government. And if you’ve ever done a search for Solar Decathlon content on social media, you’ve probably seen Farah’s posts — she is one of our biggest cheerleaders!


Name:  Farah Naz Ahmad

Year participated in Solar Decathlon:  2011

University team: The City College of New York (Team New York)

Current organization / employer:  New York City School Construction Authority

Current role:  Architect, Sustainable Design

More »

Apply for Solar Decathlon’s 2021 Design Challenge; Plan for 2023 Build Challenge!

July 9, 2020

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon® is ready to see your innovative and creative building designs! Collegiate institutions may now apply for the 2021 Design Challenge. Applications are due by October 20, 2020. The 2021 Design Challenge Rules may be found in the newly released Solar Decathlon Competition Guide.

More »

Kyle Macht is #SDLivingTheDream:
Learning Evolves to Leadership

June 15, 2020

In this installment of our special series, #SDLivingTheDream, we hear from a self-described jack of all trades who evolved into a true leader with the help of experiences in the Solar Decathlon.


Name:  Kyle Macht

Years participated in Solar Decathlon:

2007: core team member

2009: team leader

2011: rules inspector

University team:  Penn State

Current organization / employer:   Macht Architecture

Current role:  Principal

More »

Department of Energy Announces Postponement of Solar Decathlon 2020 Summer Events and Webinar on May 27

May 22, 2020

The grand winner trophies

Gain a once-in-a-lifetime experience by applying for the next Solar Decathlon Design Challenge and Build Challenge. Photo by Vern Slocum/NREL.

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon® postponed its 2020 Solar Decathlon Build Challenge from June 2020 to April 16-18, 2021. The event, originally scheduled to be part of the 2020 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, will move from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado, where it will coincide with the Solar Decathlon 2021 Design Challenge competition. The 2022 Build Challenge will take place in 2023. More »

Amanda Kirkeby is #SDLivingTheDream:
From Solar Decathlon student team to event organizing team

May 18, 2020

Our #SDLivingTheDream series continues with a recent alum from the Design Challenge who actually went on to work behind the scenes with the event’s staff, including posting to our social media channels for last month’s completely virtual event.

Amanda Kirkeby working in the lab at NREL on Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) research, an alternative method of power distribution in buildings.


Name: Amanda Kirkeby

Year participated in Solar Decathlon: 2018 Design Challenge

University team: Middlebury Zero Energy School Team (Middlebury College)

Current organization / employer: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

Current role: Post-graduate intern with the Applied Engineering group More »

Rodrigo Castro:
The Use of Energy Performance as a Design Input

April 22, 2020

A headshot of Rodrigo Castro

We’re continuing our special series to highlight alumni of both the Build Challenge and the Design Challenge of Solar Decathlon, and how their experiences with the event have shaped their careers and lives. This time on #SDLivingTheDream, it’s Rodrigo Castro.


Name: Rodrigo Castro, PhD

Year participated in Solar Decathlon: 2011

University team: Team Florida (University of Florida)

Current organization / employer: Bionova Ltd.

Current role: Senior LCA Expert


More »

Solar Decathlon Design Challenge Winners Showcase Efficient, Affordable, Innovative Buildings in Virtual Event

April 20, 2020

For the first time, the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon® Design Challenge recognized and awarded two Grand Winners – one from the residential division and one from the commercial building division. The 2020 Design Challenge culminated in a virtual event, April 17-19, 2020.

More »

Design Challenge Weekend Will Be a Completely Virtual Event

March 19, 2020

Due to the recent health concerns related to the coronavirus (COVID-19), Design Challenge Weekend (April 17–19) will be transitioned to a completely virtual event with a similar schedule. There will be no in-person activities at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or the adjacent Denver West Marriott hotel.

The revised agenda for the virtual Design Challenge Weekend and an addendum to the Competition Rules outlining changes due to the virtual nature of the event have been posted.

More »

U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon® Opens Nominations for the 2020 Richard King Award

March 10, 2020

A group of people holding a solar decathlon banner.

The Solar Decathlon teams cheer ahead of the start of competition at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, on October 3, 2013. (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon® is accepting nominations for this year’s Richard King Award in two categories: Outstanding Faculty Advisor and Outstanding Student Alumna/Alumnus.

The Richard King Award honors the founder of the Solar Decathlon. After establishing the Solar Decathlon in 2000, Richard directed the competition until his retirement from the Department of Energy in 2015. This award was created in 2017 when it was first presented to honor Richard at the Solar Decathlon in 2017 in Denver, Colorado.

Awardees will be selected based on their contributions to the transition to a clean energy economy.

Learn more about eligibility criteria and nomination forms.

The deadline to submit nominations is Friday, April 24, 2020.

The Solar Decathlon is a collegiate competition that challenges student teams to design and build highly efficient and innovative buildings powered by renewable energy. The winners will be the teams that best blend architectural and engineering excellence with innovation, market potential, building efficiency, and smart energy production.

Learn more about the Solar Decathlon.

Teresa Hamm Modley:
Designing, Building and Beyond

March 9, 2020

We’re continuing our series, #SDLivingTheDream, highlighting alumni of both the Build Challenge and Design Challenge and how their time in the competition 

has shaped their careers and their lives. This month, it’s an alum of *both* Challenges.


Name: Teresa Hamm Modley

Year participated in Solar Decathlon:

  1. 2011 Solar Decathlon (as a team partner for the Empowerhouse, I worked for Habitat for Humanity of DC)
  2. 2017-2018 Race to Zero, Elementary School Division More »

U.S. Department of Energy Signs Memorandum of Understanding with India for Solar Decathlon India Competition in 2021

March 5, 2020

WASHINGTON, DC – This week, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to provide collaboration and support to India in the establishment of Solar Decathlon India in 2021.

“India is joining an international family of Solar Decathlons that is preparing students all over the world to design and build homes integrated with advanced energy technologies while ensuring affordability and comfort,” said Daniel R Simmons, Assistant Secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. “Following President Trump and Secretary Brouillette’s visit to India, we are excited to continue collaborating with India on science and technologies that foster innovation through the power of competition.”

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon® is a longstanding collegiate competition that challenges students to design and build high-performance, energy-efficient homes powered by renewable energy. Solar Decathlon India joins five other international competitions in Europe, China, Colombia, the United Arab Emirates, and Africa.

The MOU, signed today by Assistant Secretary of DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, Daniel R Simmons, and the Executive Director of the India U.S. Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF), Dr. Nandini Kannan, allows DOE to collaborate with IUSSTF and its partners on the framework for the 2021 competition.

As part of the competition, university teams compete in 10 contests ranging from architecture and engineering to resilience and market potential.  The winners are those teams that best blend architectural and engineering excellence with innovation in how their building interacts with the world around it. To date, more than 40,000 students have participated in U.S. and international Solar Decathlon editions. The competition is a vehicle for workforce development, clean energy outreach, and technology demonstration.

The next U.S. Solar Decathlon will be held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. from June 24 through July 5, 2020 as a part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. For more information, visit



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