Imagine a New Kind of Housing Competition to Help Meet a Growing Need

Last year, I had the opportunity to visit with University of Utah associate professor of architecture Ryan Smith. I was visiting his campus to participate in an off-site manufacturing design critique for his class. Our conversation eventually turned to the Solar Decathlon—a student-led collegiate housing competition hosted biennially by the Department of Energy (DOE).

“We’d love to participate,” Ryan said, “but we just cannot afford it.”

“Afford it?” I asked, questioning his math skills. “Doesn’t DOE give $100,000 in seed money to the selected teams?”

“That’s correct,” Ryan answered, “but do you know the average cost of a home in the 2009 competition? About one-half million dollars. The winning team in 2009 spent over a million!”

""While I have always been a fan of the Solar Decathlon, my sustainability and affordability buttons were being pushed. I had no idea that it cost that much to design, build, transport, assemble, exhibit, and remove these state-of-the-art, temporary, sun-powered homes of roughly 800 square feet. Half a million dollars—even in such a prime location as Washington, D.C.’s National Mall—is no small price for an energy-efficient demonstration home.

Ryan and I then began imagining a new kind of housing competition, one resulting in permanent homes, at truly affordable price points, in cities around the country. We imagined these homes developed in partnership with public housing authorities or community development corporations, with a focus on energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and health, rather than on technology and renewable energy sources.

“And,” I posed to Ryan, “what if the homes became available to income-qualified families after a 30-day exhibition for builders, designers and the public?”

“And,” he replied, “what if the students were focused on efficient, local, contextual design, and were required to partner with professional builders to begin to bridge the design-build gap, as well as ensure the houses met code and local design requirements?”

After nearly a year of brainstorming, pitching, and fine-tuning, RMI and partner organizations are turning these ruminations into reality.

Denver Pilot

Denver Housing Authority (DHA) is one such organization interested in helping RMI launch the pilot competition. The DHA is reviewing the possibility of using five urban infill sites as the stage for a pilot competition. The current concept includes a program in which regional contractors and architects, RMI and DHA prepare each site with foundations and utility connections (water, sewer, and electricity) and randomly assign a site to each of the competing teams.

While crucial, this partnership isn’t enough; every contest needs competitors. We are currently reaching out to architecture and engineering colleges around the country to gauge interest in the competition. As presently conceived, our model would provide to each competing team a DHA pre-approved general contractor and $50,000 in seed funding.

“The DHA consistently explores creative ways to deliver sustainable, healthy and efficient housing for our clients,” said Chris Parr, director of development for the authority. We are excited about this concept as a potential model for achieving that delivery.”

Affordable housing is generally defined as housing that requires no more than 30 percent of annual household income to be spent on rent, mortgage, and utilities. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, an estimated 12 million households now pay more then 50 percent of their annual incomes for housing, and a family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States. It’s no surprise in this economy that the gap between affordable housing units available and people needing such housing has grown year on year, according to a briefing issued by the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Residential Affordable Competition for Efficiency: RACE-Home

The RMI competition will likely be judged on energy performance modeling, air leakage, and indoor air quality (using third-party validation and performance testing), among other metrics. One team will earn a “people’s choice” award, voted on by online and actual visitors. Each team also will be judged on how effectively it communicates the efficiency of its design.

We are anticipating a September 2012 formal launch of the competition among schools and the award of seed funding to each of five schools in December. We would like to see the competing homes on site by summer 2013 and, after a minimum 30-day open house for designers, builders and the community, the homes would become available for qualified families before summer’s end.

For information about RMI’s competition, contact James Scott Brew,