College Students Participate in Global Design Competition

USC students partake in solar decathlon competition.

By Ken Muche on November 5, 2013

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It took college students only a matter of days to transform a former military airstrip in Southern California into a mini neighborhood of 19 houses. Their task was to build operational, full-scale homes that would compete head-to-head for energy efficiency over eight days. Each solar-powered residence was judged on energy efficiency, architectural design, engineering and market appeal. 

The October event was part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s biannual Solar Decathlon. University teams from around the world participated in the challenge and converged at Irvine, Calif.’s Great Park, the former home of the Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.

But this wasn’t an episode of MTV Cribs. There weren’t any sprawling man caves on display in this version of Tomorrowland. The event was all about energy and spatial efficiency.

At 980 square feet, the University of Southern California’s (USC) fluxHome was the biggest pad on the block. The design was less than half the size of the average new U.S. home. However, a sleek interior with hardwood floors and prominent skylight still provided an open, modern vibe.

“Our house shows that there are affordable ways to help the environment while still living comfortably and luxuriously,” USC sophomore Maite Christi Francois told her college newspaper, The Daily Trojan. The fluxHome included energy-maximizing features like a solar chimney for natural ventilation and light sensors that displayed the cash value of the energy being used.

The USC team went on to take 10th place when the Solar Decathlon ended on Oct. 12. Austrian students from the Vienna University of Technology edged out the University of Nevada Las Vegas for first place with their visually striking use of sustainably-sourced wood. While the homes represented a radical rethink in housing design, many of their elements are being used in homes today. These include appliances, lighting fixtures and furniture that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are eco-friendly.

Verizon Wireless was also on hand at the competition to demonstrate how wireless technology can be used in today’s homes as part of an energy solution. The Belkin WeMo Light Switch, for example, allows users to control lights and set them on timers using Android or iOS mobile devices.

And what Belkin is doing for light switches, Nest is doing for thermostats. The Nest Learning Thermostat has a user-friendly interface and can be controlled from a mobile app.

“I am truly stunned at the innovation coming from these college students,” said Verizon representative Shari West. “But it will be a while before these groundbreaking designs become more commonplace. In the meantime, smart, simple and inexpensive technologies can have a big impact on cutting energy use.”