Academics & Research / Spring 2018

Solar house contest gives construction students their time in the sun

Students from the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management work on their solar house. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Looking to live off the grid in style? How about a solar-powered house with energy-efficient appliances; a rooftop deck; countertops made from recycled materials; a water system that recycles shower water; fiber-optic cable that brings natural light into a windowless bathroom; and movable walls that slide to decrease the size of the bedroom and create a larger central room when it’s time to party?

It’s a house that may well be the future of construction, and it was conceived and built last summer by DU students working in partnership with students from the University of California-Berkeley. The collaborative effort was part of the 2017 Solar Decathlon, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. The biannual contest challenges student teams from around the world to design and build full-sized, energy-efficient solar-powered houses. The dwellings are then judged on 10 criteria, including architecture, engineering, innovation, health and comfort, water and energy use, and market potential.

“It’s really inspiring to see so many young people be part of something like that and care for the environment and take a stand for what they believe in,” says DU senior Kassandra Ty, part of the DU-Berkeley team that brought the blueprints to life. Eleven student teams from around the world competed in the event, which was judged in October. The DU-Berkeley team placed third overall. The Swiss team, which consisted of students from four Swiss universities, won the competition.

“We had a relatively small team, so each of us was able to touch every aspect of the home, which made the process even more special,” says Ty, a senior property development major. “Winning third place was confirmation of our dedication and passion for the project.”

The majority of the roughly two dozen students who made up the DU portion of the team were from DU’s Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management, part of the Daniels College of Business.

“Being able to take our knowledge from the classroom and come out and actually build something feasible and physical, I think that’s where we actually connect the dots,” says Jack Ross, a Burns School graduate student who worked on the project. “It’s one thing to read it in a book, but to actually apply it on a job site that’s a school-sponsored project, it really takes the learning experience to the next level.”

Construction of the 800-square-foot house started in June in a parking lot on the DU campus. However, the design of the home started two years earlier at UC Berkeley, where a team of students was accepted into the competition in 2015. That group worked with other students, faculty and professionals on the structure’s concept, but the school lacked the construction expertise to make the design a reality.

Even after the project moved to the Mile High City and construction began, some of the Berkeley students who worked on the design came to Denver to help move the eco-friendly house to the next phase.

After four months of construction on campus — where the house was built and completely furnished — the structure was disassembled and moved to the competition site near Denver International Airport. After the competition, the home was donated to Habitat for Humanity, which is preparing it for a Denver family in need. Three other homes also will remain in Denver and will go to families in need.

Sam Durkin, a student project manager from UC Berkeley who flew to Denver to take part in the decathlon, says he is excited that a Denver family gets to live in the third-place solar decathlon home. “We didn’t want to see it go to waste,” he says. “It did awesome here, but now it has a future. It’s going to be someone’s real home, and that’s special.”


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