In an international effort, students compete in Solar Decathlon

Wynne Davis

In order to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, architecture and engineering students will work to create a design for a solar-powered house and make the house fully functionial before competing in Irvine, Calif., in 2015.

UT’s team has partnered with students from Technische Universitat Munchen in Germany for this event, after a working relationship was formed with the German university in 2013 through the EnergyXChange Conference directed by assistant architecture professor Petra Liedl in Austin. UT’s joint team was only one of 20 teams selected to compete in the event after submitting a proposal for a prototype which would serve as an affordable solar powered living space.

A team of undergraduate and graduate students from across campus worked together to create the initial concept for the entry last year and are now working on finding ways to combine their goals of efficient energy systems and modular building systems to create affordable housing.

Architectural engineering senior Kathleen Hetrick said she began working on the project in 2013. Hetrick said the Solar Decathlon project is presenting her with new engineering experiences.

“I have had design classes, but this is much more challenging as we will eventually build a full scale prototype that will accommodate an actual family of Austinites after the competition is over,” Hetrick said.

Architecture professor Michael Garrison and Liedl, along with members from the Austin Community Design and Development Center and Center for Sustainable Development, serve as advisors to help the team look into increasing affordable housing for existing Austin neighborhoods.

Because this is an international effort, UT members plan to collaborate with the students and faculty from Technische Universitat Munchen this summer, according to architecture graduate student Marianne Nepsund. Liedl said she thinks the continued collaboration between the groups will be a great opportunity.

“[I’m looking forward to] working in an interdisciplinary and intercultural team, and [having] the chance to build the house and compete with 19 other teams next year in California,” Liedl said.

Nepsund said the competition has given the team a chance to use its skills in different disciplines to address issues a lot of people don’t associate with architecture.

“My favorite thing is getting to explore how we can make sustainable architecture accessible to people across a broad range of incomes and backgrounds,” Nepsund said. “I don’t think equity is an issue that gets addressed very often through [the] Solar Decathlon.”

After the international team works together this year, Nepsund said they will put together construction documents in the fall 2014 semester and then construct the full-scale model during the spring and summer of 2015. Both Nepsund and Hetrick said they hope to apply the skills and concepts they’ve learned in the future.

“I hope to spend my career working on innovative projects that combine sustainability, engineering and public policy to address problems concerning the built environment,” Hetrick said.