World’s Best Solar Homes


As climate change ups the risk of extreme weather, a student-built house that can withstand storms wins this year’s Solar Decathlon. (Nat Geo News)

Use our resources to learn more about solar architecture.

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

Watch this super-short video to see the winning design from New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology.

Discussion Ideas

  • What is solar architecture and what does it have to do with the Solar Decathlon?
    • Solar architecture is simply the planning and design of buildings to make the most use of the sun’s energy (heat and light). Learn more about passive solar design here.
    • The Solar Decathlon “challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.” Solar architecture is just one of the 10 contests in the Solar Decathlon:
      • Architecture: Is there coherence among architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and landscaping elements?
      • Market Appeal: Does the design offer a safe, functional, convenient, comfortable, and enjoyable place to live?
      • Engineering: Do the house systems enhance occupant comfort and house performance?
      • Communications: Is the house tour informative, interesting, and engaging?
      • Affordability: Teams earn 100 points for achieving a target construction cost of $250,000 or less. Houses with estimated costs of $600,000 or more receive zero points.
      • Comfort Zone: Houses have to maintain temperatures between 71°F (22.2°C) and 76°F (24.4°C) and relative humidity less than 60%.
      • Appliances: Houses must maintain the refrigerator temperature between 34°F (1.11°C) and 40°F (4.44°C); keep the freezer temperature between -20°F (-28.9°C) and 5°F (-1.5°C); wash a load of laundry within a specified period of time; return a load of laundry to a total weight less than or equal to its total weight before washing using active or passive drying methods; run the dishwasher through a complete, uninterrupted cycle, at some point during which a temperature sensor placed in the dishwasher has to reach 120°F (48.9°C); simulate cooking by using a kitchen appliance to vaporize 5 pounds (80 oz or 2.268 kg) of water within a specified period of time.
      • Home Life: Points are awarded for turning all lights on during specified time periods; producing 15 gallons (56.8 l) of hot water (110°F/43.3°C) from the shower in 10 minutes or less at several times over the competition; operating a television and computer during specified time periods; hosting two dinner parties for neighbors; hosting a movie night for neighbors.
      • Commuting: Teams must drive an electric vehicle charged from their house electric system several times during the competition. Full points are awarded for driving 25 miles or more in two hours or less eight times during contest week.
      • Energy Balance: For energy production, a team receives full points for producing at least as much energy as its house needs, thus achieving a net energy consumption of zero during the competition. For energy consumption, a team receives full points for using 175 kWh of energy or less over the competition.


  • How does your own home measure up to the Solar Decathlon standards listed above?


  • What type of construction rules do you think solar decathletes had to follow?
    • Like all real-world civil engineers and architects, solar decathletes adhered to a strict building code to ensure their houses were safe, energy-efficient, and affordable. Some standards of the building code included:
      • fire protection plans and equipment, such as smoke alarms and fire extinguishers;
      • accessibility standards, such as a strict prohibition against stairs (all changes in elevation had to be reached with sloping ramps with hand rails);
      • a ceiling height of at least 213.4 centimeters (7 feet);
      • design loads, such as minimum thresholds on earthquake resistance and wind resistance (at least 137 kilometers per hour (85 miles per hour));
      • ventilation restrictions, such as limits on the flow of air over appliances or plumbing vents;
      • plumbing standards, such as rainwater collection regulations and isolating the potable water supply from solar water heating systems.


  • According to Nat Geo News, homes had to produce at least as much power as they use and also charge a car. To accomplish this, “Many of the homes include vertical gardens, expansive patios, movable walls, and floor-to-ceiling smart windows.” How are each of these features a part of solar or “green” architecture?
    • vertical gardens. Plants absorb solar radiation, so vertical gardens can help reduce a home’s temperature in the summer, while letting in low winter sun in the winter. Vertical gardens may also help filter slightly polluted water and airborne toxins by absorbing nutrients. The water in vertical gardens is also less likely to evaporate than water in horizontal gardens. (And they’re gorgeous!)
    • expansive patios. Large patios are covered by photovoltaic panels. Watch our video to see how a PV panel converts the energy from the sun into renewable electricity.
    • moveable walls. Sliding doors and moveable walls allow residents to take advantage of the natural warming and cooling patterns of the sun, and sometimes eliminate the indoor-outdoor divide.
    • floor-to-ceiling smart windows. Smart windows allow residents to adjust the amount of light entering a room by turning a knob or pressing a button. “This type of light control could potentially save billions of dollars on heating, cooling and lighting costs.” Learn more about smart windows here.



Nat Geo: World’s Best Solar Homes: See 14 Inspiring Student Designs

Nat Geo: solar energy resources

U.S. Department of Energy: Solar Decathlon 2015—Gallery of Houses

Stevens Institute of Technology: SURE HOUSE

U.S. Department of Energy: Passive Solar Home Design

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