Green Design and Space Saving Lessons from the Solar Decathlon

If you’re thinking about renovating your home to be more energy efficient, you might want to check out some of the cutting edge ideas in the 2013 Solar Decathlon, a model home design competition from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Every two years, the DOE challenges university students from around the world to build an 800-1000 sq. ft. net-zero energy home that not only includes solar power, but also thinks about energy efficiency and space efficiency. All student competitors get to build their model homes at an outdoor public location where people can explore each home and see the state-of-the-art designs.

For 2013, the Solar Decathlon takes place Oct. 3–13 at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. The exhibition is free, so if you’re in the Southern California area, be sure to take the family and explore these homes.

In the meantime, check out these walk-through videos for some inspiring solar and energy efficiency ideas. Since the homes are also intended to maximize a small area, you might also get some space saving tips.

Middlebury College

Middlebury College is located in the “Green Mountain State,” and its Solar Decathlon entry lives up to Vermont’s state slogan. Instead of rooftop solar, the Midd team created an exterior walkway shaded by the solar panels. Another truly green feature is its roof, which not only provides better insulation, but also sequesters carbon and helps manage storm-water runoff.

Arizona State University & The University of New Mexico

The ASU/UNM calls its design SHADE, creating innovative ways to cool the interior. Like Middlebury, the team designed a canopy solar energy system, providing shade for the home while also generating clean solar power. Another cool invention is putting in a capillary radiant system in the ceiling, which works as a low-energy passive cooling system. And if you need some space-saving ideas, go to about 1 minute into the video, where you’ll see a murphy bed that folds into the wall and converts into a desk, while also making space for a living room.  Later, you’ll see the “dining room” convert into a media room.

Southern California Institute of Architecture & California Institute of Technology

If you’re looking for a truly radical design, then look no further than the SCIArc/CIT entry. It tears down the typical L.A. McMansion into a solar home that can literally expand and contract as needed. Two prefabricated modules move across a rail system and open easily to create an outdoor living space that triples the inhabitable square footage. Instead of shingles or stucco, the team created a vinyl exterior skin that’s a durable waterproof body glove. The house looks strange, but the engineering for the rail system is pretty amazing:

Santa Clara University

For a somewhat more traditional looking home, take a tour of Santa Clara University’s “Radiant House.” The 1000 sq ft one bedroom home is also modular with three areas tied together with rooftop solar panels. For sustainability purposes, the entire home’s structure is made from bamboo. Anticipating the growth in EVs, the home also features an electric vehicle charging station. With only one bedroom, there’s more room for a larger kitchen and bedroom than other two-bedroom homes in the competition.

That’s just a small taste of the 2013 Solar Decathlon homes. If you’d like to see all of the designs, visit the official website at

If you’d like to explore installing a more traditional rooftop or canopy solar system for your home or business, contact an REC Solar consultant in your area. We love to install a beautiful solar system on your beautiful home.

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