Students Soar with Solar

Each year, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) holds its Solar Decathlon, a remarkable intercollegiate competition that challenges students to design, finance, and build homes that are both solar powered and fully functional.  According to the DOE the program seeks to provide “participating students with unique training that prepares them for the clean energy workforce,” as well as, “[educate] the public about the money-saving opportunities and environmental benefits presented by clean energy products and design solutions.” NAHB has taken pride in sponsoring this program for many years.
The homes have evolved since the first event, held on the National Mall in 2002. But they have always reflected not only the latest technological advances in energy efficiency, but also the creative genius of the students who discover alternate paths to reducing the energy footprint of shelter.


The contest criteria focuses on six categories of utmost importance in home building: Architecture, Market Appeal, Engineering, Communications, Affordability, and Comfort. These criteria reflect the factors that every home builder knows are essential in building and selling homes.

Moreover, this program provides the students with an immersive dive into the mechanics, art, and science of homebuilding. Beneath their exteriors, these shelters exemplify single family construction. The homes are not mere mock-ups, but actual residences, and many serve as permanent housing after the event. Built to the International Residential Code and the National Electrical Code, the homes must comply with the same exacting standards of those in the building industry. Failure to meet these requirements will limit or prevent participation.

To witness the assemblage of all these homes on a single site is an awesome experience. The entire construction process includes tireless hours of manual labor mixed with the students’ boundless zeal, enthusiasm, and unflagging commitment. There is truly a collegiate manner evident as competitors treat each other as colleagues: friendly and encouraging of each other through trials and accomplishments.


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2015 Winner
With so many wonderful projects to review, the judges had their work cut out for them. But when all the points were tallied up, DOE announced the Stevens Institute of Technology’s “SURE HOUSE” took the overall top honors by; “designing, building, and operating the most cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive solar powered house.”

The origins of the SURE HOUSE began after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the New Jersey shoreline back in 2012.  The Stevens Institute decided to focus not only on solar and energy efficiency, but also constructing a home to better resist whatever the Atlantic coast weather could throw at them. The Institute combined the words SUstainability with Resiliency to name its winning entry.

The Stevens Institute’s says it, “merged the inherently efficient indoor/outdoor rooms and open floor plan of the quintessential 60’s style modern beach cottage with state of the art building science, the latest renewable energy technologies, and fiber-composite materials repurposed from the boat building industry.” The end result is a raised residence that is “armored” to resist severe coastal weather.

The students’ design did not stop there. They powered the home with a solar energy array that would continue producing power when storms knock out the power grid.  And if that was not enough, this residential shelter becomes a “hub to for emergency power to the neighborhood”, by providing neighbors the opportunity to charge their electrical devices.

The SURE HOUSE uses 90 percent less energy than a comparable home in that area within a design that blends form with function. The Stevens Institute’s online computer animated walkthrough provides a view of the home’s creation from concept to a finished product.

This house is just one of the many jewels to be discovered at a Solar Decathlon event, where there is always something to learn and to marvel at. One of the best reasons for attending is the prospect of being able to talk to the students themselves and hear first-hand about their learning process and adventures in bringing these homes to fruition. Their enthusiasm and passion is contagious.

As a Solar Decathlon contributing sponsor for many years, the National Association of Home Builders is proud of these Decathletes, as they explore new ways to provide energy efficient and sustainable shelter. We look forward to a bright future with these students as they move into the home building industry.

For more information on the winning home, visit

Originally published in the Winter 2016 Issue of Best in American Living

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