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This mountain project won the DOE’s Solar Decathlon Build Challenge

The US Department of Energy announced the winners of its collegiate competition, the Solar Decathlon, yesterday. The contest, which has been running since 2002, challenges student teams to design and build highly efficient and innovative buildings powered by clean energy.

What’s the Solar Decathlon?

As the US Department of Energy explains in its blog:

The US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is a collegiate competition that prepares the next generation of building professionals to design and build high-performance, low-carbon buildings powered by renewables. The Design Challenge is a one- to two-semester, design-only competition, while the Build Challenge is a two-year design-build competition.

More than 20,000 students have participated in the Decathlon, and many have gone on to become architects, designers, engineers, and researchers at DOE’s National Labs. 

Students from 72 teams, representing 66 collegiate institutions and 12 countries, competed for top prizes in the 2020 Build Challenge and 2021 Design Challenge during the Competition Event.

The Solar Decathlon Competition Event was held over the weekend at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

The 2020 Build Challenge Overall winner

University of Colorado, Boulder’s SPARC House Photo: DOE Solar Decathlon

Build Challenge participants design and build complete, functional houses in their communities over a two-year period to demonstrate creative solutions for real-world issues.

The winner of the 2020 Build Challenge, announced on Sunday by Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, was the University of Colorado, Boulder team. It’s the third time CU Boulder has placed first in the competitive national event over the past 20 years.

Granholm said of the winning project:

It combines strong architecture and thoughtful market potential and innovative technologies. It showcased energy -efficient performance in its high-altitude cold climate.

Participating students from sophomores to PhDs have majors in architectural engineering, engineering plus, environmental design, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, environmental engineering, business, and anthropology. 

Their aim in the contest was to address the housing attainability crisis and construction challenges facing mountain towns across the US.

The team created the SPARC House – Sustainability, Performance, Attainability, Resilience, and Community – in Fraser, Colorado, to serve as a replicable example of a high-performance building and an affordable living solution for seasonal and year-round service workers. The team explains its flexible, space-efficient, multi-use floor plan in its market strategy:

With energy modeling and thoughtful design, the SPARC House consumes less energy than standard similar homes and is powered by rooftop solar photovoltaics, avoiding mountain community utility costs, which can be higher than the national average. Additionally, smart systems reduce maintenance and recovery costs, reducing the effective price of the home. The SPARC House is a model of an attainable, resilient, and efficient home that meets the needs of all its residents.

The SPARC house is already selling energy back to the local power grid, all while temperatures still drop below freezing at night and the new homeowners use it to charge their electric car. In addition to significantly reduced utility costs and modest footprint, it also features an attached rental unit that further addresses housing affordability and attainability in mountain towns. 

Hannah Blake, project co-lead who graduated in 2020 and is now a mechanical designer at Henderson Engineers in Phoenix, told Electrek:

Our project addresses residential attainability issues in mountain towns, but the design strategies and philosophies we implemented are transferable across different building types and climates. The SPARC House sets a precedent for cold-climate, sustainable building design because it proves that achieving zero-energy plus status with an all-electric design is possible with technology that is on the market right now. We want the industry to learn from our success with cold-climate heat pump technology in the coldest town in the US.

You can read more about their project here.

The 2021 Design Challenge winners were University of Oregon (commercial) and Northwestern University (residential).

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Avatar for Michelle Lewis Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis is a writer and editor on Electrek and an editor on DroneDJ, 9to5Mac, and 9to5Google. She lives in St. Petersburg, Florida. She has previously worked for Fast Company, the Guardian, News Deeply, Time, and others. Message Michelle on Twitter or at Check out her personal blog.