SU+RE HOUSE Q&A: The DOE’s Solar Decathlon

On Thursday, April 21, we’ll hear about the SU+RE HOUSE (which stands for Sustainability + Resiliency) from the Stevens Institute of Technology’s student-led team of engineers and architects who helped design it. Intended as “a home which both reduces its energy use and adapts to the realities of a changing, more extreme climate,” the SURE HOUSE gained national prominence as the winner of last year’s U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon design competition.

To learn more about the competition and how it helps bring projects like the SURE HOUSE to life, we spoke with Decathlon juror Susan Aiello (Interior Design Solutions, CID, LEED AP) ahead of next week’s presentation:

Urban Green Council: How would you describe the Solar Decathlon and its significance to the wider academic and building communities?

Susan Aiello: The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, organized and produced by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, challenges collegiate teams from the U.S. & abroad to design and build energy-efficient houses powered by the sun. Teams spend almost two years creating comfortable, healthy, attractive, and affordable houses that produce at least as much energy as they consume.

The Decathlon educates students and the public about the money-saving opportunities and environmental benefits presented by clean-energy products and design solutions. It also demonstrates to the public the comfort and affordability of homes that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems available today. Finally, it provides participating students with unique training that prepares them to enter our nation's clean energy workforce.

The SURE HOUSE

UGC: Are there any approaches that are typical of Decathlon projects?

SA: The teams generally take a holistic approach to sustainable design and construction, and many of the houses probably could qualify as LEED Platinum, as well as meet Passive House standards.

Each house in the past two competitions has exceeded the goal of net zero energy consumption, which in 2013 included “commuting” in a car powered by energy generated by the house. Water conservation is another big focus, both inside the house and in landscape choices. These are healthy homes, with indoor air quality that far exceeds the norm. Many of the teams also address societal issues, including social justice and the need for disaster housing.

Teams not only demonstrate how to live well inside a small ecological footprint, they provide detailed instructions on how to do so. Plans and specifications for all of the houses are available to view on the Solar Decathlon site.  

Because the maximum allowable indoor living space is 1,000 square feet, houses are beautifully designed to take advantage of every square inch of space. People who live in or design relatively small spaces—like NYC apartments—could pick up some great ideas by just looking at these houses.

UGC: How do jurors make their decisions?

SA: Like the Olympic Decathlon, the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon consists of 10 contests, half of which are measured and half of which are juried. Each contest is worth a maximum of 100 points, for a competition total of 1,000 points.

The juried contests are far from subjective. Jurors are given a detailed spreadsheet that includes the specific criteria pertaining to the contest. Once we agree on weight that we will assign to each criterion, we rate each house according to the extent to which it meets each criterion, expressed as a percentage from 0 to 100.  

The Market Appeal Jury, on which I served, evaluates livability, marketability, and buildability. Livability criteria include things like comfort, convenience, enjoyment, and how well the house meets the needs and desires of the target client. Marketability criteria include things like curb appeal, interior appeal, and value, as well as how a house’s sustainability features contribute to its marketability. And buildability criteria include the quality of drawings and specifications and the availability of the materials and equipment used.

UGC: Apart from SURE House, are there any especially memorable projects/teams or moments that you recall during your participation?

SA: The first year I was a juror, The New School partnered with Stevens to design a house to be used as a prototype for Habitat for Humanity. The collaboration of students majoring in engineering, interior design, and finance was reflective of “real world” situations. When the jurors toured the house, the team had already met the family that would be living in the house once the competition was over, and seemed much more excited about the difference that they would be making in the lives of the new owners than about the competition. While the jurors were impressed with what the team had achieved, we were blown away by the fact that they remained so focused, in the heat of completion, on their goal of providing safe, pleasant, affordable housing.

UGC: What will be special about the SURE HOUSE team's presentation on April 21?

SA: Other organizations have hosted presentations about the SURE House, but as I understand it those have focused mostly on energy. Urban Green has asked Stevens to focus on the resiliency aspects of the house. With resiliency, as with other aspects of building, the team cleverly combined cutting-edge techniques with useful ideas that would be so easy to implement that my immediate reaction was: “why hasn’t anyone else thought of this?” An excellent and simple example of the latter is the placement of outlets and wiring above flood level.

Learn about the project’s many resiliency features—including a solar system that can isolate itself from the grid to provide emergency power, and a charging hub for neighbors in need during blackouts—from the team on Thursday, April 21, at The New School.

About the author

Urban Green Council
Dedicated to transforming buildings for a sustainable future.