The Solar Decathlon—A Real-Life Pinterest Board for Home Upgrades

15 July 2019, 16:32

By Syd Ulrich-Dogonniuck, Sustainability Content Writer for Realty Sage 

Given we live in a digital age, it makes sense that many of us turn to apps and online resources for inspiration when it comes to home remodeling. That being said, I’d like to make the case to you that there’s a another resource out there—a large-as-life resource that you can actually walk through to see how new additions might work in your own home.

This inspiration is just around the corner but you likely weren’t aware of it --- The Solar Decathlon!

"FutureHAUS Dubai" exterior. Photo courtesty of Erik Thorsen

I know you may be thinking, “This is crazy. The Solar Decathlon is an event!” But, it’s really so much more!!

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Solar Decathlon, I’ll give you a quick overview:

The Solar Decathlon is a collegiate event that provides teams of students from engineering and architecture programs the opportunity to design and build the most energy efficient homes as possible every 2 years.

The houses are judged on a variety of categories, from energy and innovation to market potential and health, and during the judging process these houses are on display for the public to tour. The actual event is sponsored by the US Department of Energy, but each team typically has numerous industry sponsors, including energy companies and clean-tech start-ups. The result is a showcase of homes, which are truly a futuristic look into residential housing.

While some of these houses may seem to have features that could have been based on the Jetsons’ house, don’t let all the high-tech gadgets scare you off! These houses are really a wealth of inspiration at your fingertips for your next renovation project. While the extra technology may seem daunting at first, all the special add-ons in the Solar Decathlon houses are intended to make your life significantly easier and your environmental footprint much smaller.

If we look at the homes that have truly pushed the envelope in past Solar Decathlons, we start to see trends in the way the sustainable housing market is going. While we are seeing more and more technology being integrated into the home, it’s interesting to realize that the technology is in place to allow us to go back to a simpler way of life, which brings people back together.

I found these 3 themes to be most interesting:

"FutureHAUS Dubai"  flex space. Photo courtesty of Erik Thorsen

  1. Open Floor Plans to Create Community—

One of the most obvious trends we have seen in recent competition years is the trend towards large, open floorplans. Almost every single house in the most recent Solar Decathlon had a fully open concept central living area—meaning the kitchen, dining room and living area all flow together to create shared spaces. In this way, people can connect with each other and build that feeling of community—whether it’s with family or friends—and no one is separated from the rest of the group!

What the science says:

It’s actually been shown that interactions with other people are really beneficial for the brain, even if it’s simply being in the same space as someone else. One amazing example of this is in Future Haus, Virginia Tech’s latest submission at the Solar Decathlon: The house has an open concept living area, however there is an office that is separated from the open living space by a movable wall! This is one of the most innovative ways I have seen the open concept idea embraced, as the VT team actually employs the idea of community twice—once in the living space, which can be expanded for large social gatherings, but also in the office which can accommodate large conference calls or team meetings!

  1. Working with Nature, Not Against It—

The next item that we see through and through in every single Solar Decathlon home design in the idea of working with nature (not that this should be shocking to anyone, considering it is called the Solar Decathlon after all). But I do want to explain myself here, I don’t just mean solar panels, or actually anything high-tech! Lately the stellar Solar Decathlon houses have really gone above and beyond to take into account things such as natural light and shade, cross-flows and indoor-outdoor living concepts to really drive down the amount of energy used residentially.

Repurposing ideas:

These are concepts that humans have used for centuries to maintain comfortable temperatures within homes and a great way to use what nature already provides! Yale really took this idea to heart in their first Solar Decathlon submission in 2015, and the first 30 seconds of the YHouse Audiovisual Lookbook make it really easy to understand why sometimes moving forwards requires looking back.

Photo courtesy of

  1.  Smart Home Technology—

The third trend is, in my opinion, the one that most people are aware of, but there’s a twist! Many companies have created affordable, easy to use smart-tech for the average home-owner that will help you save money on energy bills by turning off your lights when you aren’t there and regulate your heating and cooling needs based on when you’re asleep or at work. But the Solar Decathlon does truly take smart technology for the family home to a whole new (mind-blowingly cool) level. Smart home tech is no longer just to save you energy, but to assist with entertainment, allow for aging-in-place, and even to keep you as safe as any house can.

A great example of this:

The technology that was integrated into Virginia Tech’s Future Haus can adjust the house for varied levels of mobility, for people of different heights, and remembers what is easiest for you to based on voice and gait recognition. Really, we should rename “smart home technology” to “beyond brilliant home technology”!

See it for yourself --

So now for the really exciting part! Did you know you can visit these amazing, Jetson-esque houses whenever you want?

I think this is the part that so many people are unaware of (I had no idea until recently, too!).  Many of the previous competition houses either go “on tour”, go back to their home campus, or are purchased by private homeowners. Now we obviously can’t all go traipsing through other people’s homes, but almost all of the other houses are open for public tours!

This nifty map actually shows you where each previous Solar Decathlon house is located. And if you click on the house you’re interested in, you can even look up how to request a tour.

A little bonus for any readers in Northern Virginia, did you know the Virginia Tech house is actually in Alexandria, VA ? It’s 100% worth a peek and will be on site until August 16th, 2019.

Look ahead ---

The other thing that many people are frequently not aware of is that there isn’t just one Solar Decathlon, there are actually multiple! Homes are constructed in and for different regions in the world. These climates and conditions vary widely. Therefore, it makes sense that many regions have their own Decathlon which focus on the specific needs in that region.

The Middle East recently had its first Solar Decathlon Middle East in 2018 with its next event scheduled for 2020. China has hosted 2 decathlons thus far (2013, 2018) and has primarily featured teams from Chinese universities, but has yet to schedule another one.

Solar Decathlon Europe is actually in full swing right now! The opening ceremony was July 12th, 2019, and the Solar Village will be on extended display through September 29th, 2019, in Szentendre, Hunagry!! The next scheduled Solar Decathlon Europe is set for 2021, however it is good to keep in mind that the Europian competition is not scheduled bi-annually, but the time frame changes each competition. In the past there has been as little as a 2 year window between competitions and as large as a 5 year window.

The next Solar Decathlon is actually the first Solar Decathlon Africa. It’s kicking off this September in Morocco. The Solar Decathlon Africa will focus on culture, heritage and natural resources into the house designs. In December 2019, Solar Decathlon Latin America & Caribbean will take place in Cali, Colombia. This will be the second Solar Decathlon Latin America & Caribbean, the first being held in 2015, however both have been held in Cali.

There is a crazy amount of innovation and inspiration out there that you can actually see, feel, and walk through before you rip out any walls or install a drone landing hatch instead of a mailbox! Though some of the features in the Solar Decathlon houses may seem very futuristic, they are actually just around the corner.

Go check them out and you never know what ideas you’ll be able to implement in your own home!

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