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

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

After Hurricane Sandy pummelled the New Jersey shore in 2012, college students took action. They designed and built a solar home that could survive fierce winds, produce electricity during blackouts and even allow neighbors to charge their electronics.

A team from the Stevens Institute of Technology, based in Hoboken, N.J., took top honors at the Solar Decathlon 2015, a biennial contest sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy that ended Sunday in Irvine, California. Fourteen teams, representing 23 colleges from five countries, competed to build the most affordable, attractive, and efficient solar-powered home.

Stevens’ SURE HOUSE, conceived as the “Coastal Home of the Future,” obtained the most points overall and scored highest in seven of the 10 individual categories, including architecture, engineering, and market appeal. Stevens also competed in the 2011 and 2013 decathlons.

“This project was about creating a real, livable residence for families in coastal communities who will be hardest hit by the effects of climate change,” said A.J. Elliott, a graduate student on the Stevens’ team. The house has bi-folding storm shutters, made with a composite foam core and wrapped with fiberglass, to block debris and water during inclement weather.

Second place, overall, went to the University at Buffalo (State University of New York), which featured an indoor greenhouse for growing food year-round, and third place went to California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

Many of the homes include vertical gardens, expansive patios, movable walls and floor-to-ceiling smart windows. They had to produce at least as much power as they use and also charge a car. Each team got $50,000 from the DOE but had to raise the rest of their money—an obstacle that forced some colleges, including Yale, to withdraw.

Two teams won the affordability contest by spending less than $250,000. The University of California, Davis came in just under the wire with a home estimated to cost $249,312. The least expensive home, estimated at $120,282, was built by a team comprised of Western New England University, Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá, and Honduras’ Universidad Tecnológica Centroamericana.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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