2020 Solar Decathlon Design Challenge Highlights Pioneering Housing Solutions

Credit: 2019-2020 Penn State Solar Decathlon Team

This year’s Solar Decathlon Design Challenge — a competition where collegiate teams design energy-efficient buildings while focusing on affordability, resilience and occupant health — operated a bit differently than previous years. Given guidance and precautions surrounding the coronavirus, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) decided to hold a virtual competition April 17-20.

“Inspiring, invigorating and humbling — the organizers managed to maintain the integrity of the competition and executed this year’s virtual event to perfection,” noted NAHB Sustainability and Green Building subcommittee past chairman and member Ray Tonjes, a juror this year.

Prior to the virtual event, jurors spent hours reviewing project reports and 25-minute video recordings that introduced each collegiate team’s design. Forty-five teams representing 31 colleges competed for the grand prize, and for the first time, there were two winners: one for residential and one for commercial. Miami University (Ohio) was the residential grand winner for a community in Cincinnati called Peace Village. The design features a solar photovoltaic (PV) microgrid, bioswales to encourage biodiversity and absorb rainwater, other rainwater mitigation strategies to reduce flooding, and durable materials to resist high winds.

The Miami University team partnered with a modular manufacturer to use modular components, such as a panelized building envelope system, to increase energy efficiency and help save on labor and construction costs. The modular design helped keep the project simple, easily transitioning between three- and four-bedroom units.

Other features of Peace Village include:

  • Intentional placement of windows to take advantage of westward winds and naturally ventilate units;
  • Community gardens, murals and basketball courts, which were existing features on the land that were important to residents;
  • A rent-to-own model to help residents who earn 50% or below the area median income; and
  • Achieving goals of neighborhood cohesiveness, accessibility and inclusion, sustainability, prefabricated design and more.

Credit: 2019-2020 Penn State Solar Decathlon Team

NAHB student chapter member Pennsylvania State University won an honorable mention in the suburban single-family division. The design for Thompson Place prioritizes a sense of community, quality of life, affordability and resilience. The Pennsylvania State University team worked with the Centre County Housing and Land Trust (CCHLT), an organization that helps low-income families purchase homes by taking the price of land out of the equation.

The design features “pods” of houses that have overlapping backyards/gardens where children can play, and neighbors can socialize in a shared space. Clustered plumbing within the units minimizes duct runs and maximizes affordability through compact design and the use of fewer materials. For example, the kitchen shares a wall with a bathroom.

“Each team’s ability to use the available technology to effectively present core concepts of their designs and respond to the jurors’ questions from their homes was outstanding and is an example for how the home-building business could continue to operate during this time,” stated NAHB member Nathan Kahre of EnergyLogic, a juror this year for the urban single-family division. Kahre also competed in the event while pursuing his graduate degree at the Appalachian State University.

Designing for Climate Zone 5A (hot, humid summers and cold, dry winters) in Pennsylvania, the team incorporated ductless mini-split heat pumps, which can be cost effective because of their efficiency and the relatively small size of the homes; no backup heat is needed because of the airtight building envelope. The team proposed the use of an energy recovery ventilator (ERV) to maximize comfort through ventilation and humidity control. The project team also accounted for predicted weather conditions in 2050, so that the building envelope design is resilient and can control for moisture in the home for years to come.

The Pennsylvania State University’s project also uses a flexible design so that the “social core” of the home (kitchen/living/dining) can be flipped and oriented a certain way depending where the lot sits to take maximum advantage of the solar heat gains.

“It was outstanding to see the students respond to the competition requirements and look for cost-effective solutions to implement resilient, high-performance and net-zero homes,” Kahre observed. “My fellow jurors and I saw home designs that worked for both their physical and economic climates. One of the biggest innovations was a focus on carbon reduction both in the materials and the long-term operations of the homes.”

For the full list of winners and to see all project team presentations, visit the 2020 Design Challenge results page.

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