Solar Decathlon: Working Toward Smart, Energy-Efficient Housing

Audrey Merwin

Anyone who watches reality TV shows about real estate knows that the hunt for homes that are well-built, affordable, and, of course, attractive is nonstop. And with the anticipated growth of the world’s population, the need for more — and smarter — housing has never been more pressing.

Not surprisingly, government and higher education are turning to technology for the answers. The U.S. Department of Energy challenged university students address these concerns with a competition called Solar Decathlon, which took place in October in Irvine, California. The call was for collegiate teams to design and build energy-efficient houses that are powered by the sun. And the resulting entries are amazing, prompting this writer to say, “I want one!”

Teams from at least 14 schools focused on subjects like mechanical, electrical, and structural engineering, as well as architecture, with the support of faculty advisors, and sponsors. In the process, students focused on:

  • collaborating across multiple disciplines on a real-world project to build a home
  • learning to use energy-efficient technologies and materials that exist today
  • appreciating the challenge of designing with clean energy and environmental benefits in mind

The model homes were judged on 10 criteria, including architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort zone, appliances, home life, commuting, and energy balance. The criteria reflect the growing importance of solar power and use of energy-efficient technologies. But they also stress the experience of people who could one day occupy one of these homes. For example:

  • Is a home comfortable in terms of temperature and humidity?
  • How easy is it to control lighting and entertainment, and to maintain the house?
  • Does the house look appealing both inside and out?

Browsing the entries is as entertaining as flipping through an issue of Architectural Digest — and they’re as varied as the regions they come from. Southern entries maximized warm climate with an indoor-outdoor feel, northern contenders found ways to conserve heat, and those affected by natural disasters had innovative solutions to address them. Among the most intriguing concepts:

  • reuse of grey water for planting
  • a fiberglass exterior shell that makes a home flood-proof
  • interior walls that move and shift to adjust to a family’s needs
  • the capacity to add more stories to expand in an urban environment
  • use of both recycled and natural, locally sourced building materials
  • a greenhouse providing a temperature buffer between indoors and outdoors in cold climates
  • predictive home automation using weather forecasts, comfort preferences, and schedules to reduce energy consumption

The winners of the competition were announced in October (although they’re all winners in my book!). Of course, I’m proud to say that first place went to contestants from my hometown, Hoboken, NJ. The team from Stevens Institute of Technology built SURE HOUSE, designed to withstand the next hurricane or superstorm.

How could IoT technology help foster alternative energies? See Internet of Things For Energy Efficiency.

Audrey Merwin is a writer and editor who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.

About Audrey Merwin

Audrey Merwin is a writer and editor who lives in Hoboken, New Jersey.