The Stevens Institute of Technology, a private university based in Hoboken, New Jersey, won the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s 2015 Solar Decathlon Saturday—taking an unprecedented first place in seven of the 10 competition categories. This top-ranked project, called Sure House (as in, SUstainable + REsilient), responds not only to the contest’s rigorous energy challenges, but also to the perils of rising seawaters, as experienced along the Atlantic Coast during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “For those of us near the Jersey Shore,” says Ed May, Sure’s project manager, “sustainability calls for both solar energy and resiliency—it’s a reality of our changing climate.”
The Solar Decathlon has also been evolving. When Richard King founded the competition in 2000, under DOE auspices, sun-powered homes and zero-emission cars were rare. While working in photovoltaic research and development for the energy department in the 1980s and ‘90s, King observed public resistance to integration of PVs into houses. “It had a lot to do with perception and lack of knowledge,” he recalls. “So, I asked: How can we educate homeowners, and how can we create beautiful solar houses that people would really want to live in?” King, who had overseen a solar-car design-and-racing competition in the past, hit upon the idea of enlisting architecture and engineering students—future building professionals—to address this challenge.
The resulting Solar Decathlon is a collegiate program in which combined undergraduate and graduate teams work closely with faculty for two years to design and build functional, prototypical net-zero houses. Then, in just nine days the students temporarily re-erect the houses—each 1,000 square feet or less—on a designated site for jury evaluation and public viewing. For the first five Decathlons, the competing homes were assembled on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., but in 2013 and 2015, Irvine, California, hosted this biennial event.
Loosely modeled on an Olympic decathlon, the DOE’s version has 10 demanding contests scored by juries, performance data, and/or specific task completion (such as laundry washing or dinner-party hosting within prescribed parameters). The 10 formal categories, each with its own review panel include Architecture, Engineering, Market Appeal, Affordability, Energy Balance, and Home Life.
“As the technologies advance and competitors learn from past entries, we’ve had to raise the bar,” says King. The latest requirement is for each home to recharge an electric car daily for 25 miles of commuting—a component that can increase household energy consumption by nearly 50 percent.
Over the years, many teams have made the projects responsive to local environmental threats, as with this year’s ShelteR3 house, an entry by Missouri’s Crowder College and Drury University, inspired by Joplin’s catastrophic 2011 tornado, and the winning Stevens Institute scheme, prompted by Hurricane Sandy.
Designed to protect against devastating floods and wind-borne storm debris, Sure House proposes a grade-level alternative to the high-stilted solutions that FEMA recommends for coastal sites. Combining traditional beachfront traits with advanced technologies, the cedar-clad home has a louvered, sun-screening porch and marine-grade, fiber-composite storm shutters that close down for a watertight seal. These panels also provide shading. Entirely solar powered, this $290,000 house integrates triple-paned, high-R value, argon gas-filled windows and a PV system that can operate independently of the grid during emergencies. This was Stevens’s third Decathlon (they ranked 14th in 2011 and fourth in 2013)—but this time, says King, “they really nailed it.”
The second-place winner was the University at Buffalo of The State University of New York, with its GRoW Home, an exposed steel-framed structure, featuring a solarium and greenhouse designed for harvesting produce year-round. Though edible landscaping was not required, many entries included it, like the fourth-place NexusHaus, a collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin and Germany’s Technische Universität München, that included an aquaponic system with plants, fish, and passive rainwater filtration. 
Third prize went to California State Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo, for the INhouse, with its phase-changing, palm oil-based heat-exchange system and slatted exterior screens from the school’s own sustainably harvested redwoods. The fifth-place recipient, Missouri University of Science and Technology, with its Nest Home, was notable for inventive repurposing and recycling, integrating metal shipping containers and wood palettes, industrial gears, glass shards, and carpets from old fishing-net fibers.
One of the competition’s significant logistical obstacles involves transporting the homes in sections, some cross-country, for reassembly at the judging-and-public-exhibition site. It’s an energy-consuming, if not wasteful, maneuver, with long-distance transfers exceeding $100,000 (adding to the funding the teams must typically raise themselves). But this year, sixth-place Clemson University, with its Indigo Pine house, deftly and inventively bypassed that major hurdle. Its student-devised Sim[PLY] system generated a kit of parts locally: CNC-cut plywood pieces, flat-packed and individually numbered for assembly like a 3D puzzle. With tab-and-slot connections, secured by steel zip ties, the whole building, including structural framing and finished built-ins, was erected with handheld power tools. “Unlike other schools,” says team member Will Gautsch, “our house arrived on a flash drive.”
Post-competition, Decathlon houses generally go on to new lives: as solar-energy demonstration buildings at universities or in cities; as on-campus student or visitor housing; or as family homes for buyers who move them to entirely new sites. Sure House (which hit a low overpass 20 minutes outside of Hoboken on its way west, but was repaired) will become a municipal community center on a beachfront site in Seaside Park, New Jersey.
Meanwhile, the Solar Decathlon is expanding its presence globally: Through licensing abroad, the competition has taken place in Spain, France, China, Colombia—and, coming up in Dubai.