Making Affordable Superefficient Homes a Reality

Imagine an affordable superefficient home entirely powered by solar energy. Sound too good to be true?

Students from a select group of North American colleges and universities are working hard to make that home possible. The 2013 Denver Superefficient Housing Challenge—a collaborative project between the Denver Housing Authority (DHA) and Rocky Mountain Institute—has selected five teams of students to tackle the challenge of building affordable, energy-efficient homes.

Students Rise to the Challenge

The teams selected for the 2013 competition are from the Pennsylvania College of Technology; Ryerson University in Toronto; University of Colorado Denver; University of Nevada, Las Vegas; and University of Utah.

These teams are tasked with designing five “demonstration homes” that are at least 50–60 percent more efficient than local building code and within the DHA’s affordable housing cost parameters. Meeting this efficiency goal could allow for a small solar array (say 200 to 400 square feet of panels) to fulfill the entire home’s energy demands. The challenge not only gives the Denver Housing Authority models to use for future buildings, but those models will actually be built and lived in, providing five Denver families with homes that are efficient, healthy, and affordable.

“The student teams come from different backgrounds and will likely take on the challenges of superefficient design from different angles, so it will be exciting to see where they focus the energy savings,” says Alexis Karolides, a principal with RMI’s buildings practice and advisor for the Challenge.

The Denver Challenge is a regional component of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Challenge Home Student Design Competition, a national effort to encourage students working towards careers in architecture, engineering, construction, and clean energy to take their studies beyond the classroom and work towards solving real-world problems. The Denver Challenge teams will have their designs submitted to the DOE’s national competition for consideration. But unique to the Denver competition, student designs will actually be built and occupied.

Making practice practical

Throughout this fall, RMI will facilitate the student design process, ensuring that students meet their academic requirements and produce design structures that appropriately consider location, climate, and energy demands. Once designed, DHA and its selected housing developer will take the student designs and bring them to life in Denver’s Sustainability Park (SPark), a site in downtown Denver dedicated to modeling examples of renewable energy, urban agriculture, and thoughtful land and water use. Among other innovative projects, SPark showcases a year-round high-altitude greenhouse, aquaponics and fish farms that produce plants and fish whose waste fertilize gardens, LED street lights, and electric car charging stations. The Denver Housing Authority will soon add efficient affordable houses to the mix.

“The Denver challenge offers students the invaluable opportunity to get hands-on experience not only in the design phase but also in the continuing life of efficient buildings. The homes they design will be built, occupied, and tested for energy efficiency, air quality, and public appeal,” says Karolides. “We hope that the Denver Challenge will encourage today’s students (and tomorrow’s building industry) to integrate efficiency into all of their designs, affordable or otherwise.”