Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.
“Sure House,” designed by the Stevens Institute of Technology, just won the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.
In an ideal world, everyone would be driving around in electric cars, our goods would be properly recycled and reused, and all of our homes would include solar panels.
But it’s no secret that sustainable living often runs into issues of affordability and feasibility, especially in urban areas. When it comes to home building, in particular, installing renewable energy can be a costly affair, and relying on wind or sun to power your home often entails serious lifestyle adjustments (in some cases, you may have to forget about that late night cup of coffee). Then there’s the issue of pure aesthetics—homes built with sustainable materials aren’t always the most attractive.
Despite these potential setbacks, the future of sustainable design looks pretty bright. This month the U.S. Department of Energy held its biennial Solar Decathlon, where collegiate teams from around the world competed to create livable, affordable, and attractive solar-powered homes.
Equipped with $50,000 in DOE grant money, 20 teams spent two years designing and building homes that they then re-assembled at the start of the competition on October 8 in Irvine, California. Contestants were judged according to 10 different criteria ranging from engineering to market appeal.
The winner of the decathlon was the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey, whose project “Sure House” was designed to adapt to extreme climates while also reducing energy use. Motivated by the devastating effects of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the team set out to build a shore home that could withstand high winds and up to 5 feet of flooding along the New York and New Jersey coast.
The house can be raised slightly, and also features a storm-resistant shell on its bottom half, which is sealed, insulated, and waterproof. “I think that house would float if you put it in the water, it was so sealed up,” says decathlon founder and director Richard King.
Another distinguishing feature of Sure House is that it uses 90 percent less energy than the average New Jersey home. The building’s envelope, or outer shell, reduces energy demand through an insulation system (which uses a ventilator to recycle heat from outgoing air) and by relying on energy-efficient appliances and lighting, among other features.
The house is also entirely solar-powered, so it’s capable of generating power without batteries—even during a blackout when the grid is down. The secret is the use of shutters equipped with solar photovoltaic panels, which can provide both electricity and hot water in the event of an emergency. If necessary, neighbors can also charge their electronic devices using exterior USBs. The shutters also double as a means of physically protecting the home from a storm, and in milder climates, they can be raised to offer residents some shade.
The Sure House runs on the smaller end. Although it’s designed to accommodate a family, it only has two bedrooms and one bathroom. But the estimated cost is a modest $300,000, and that’s not even taking into account the long-term financial benefits of solar energy. King estimates that most people spend around $100,000 over the course of 30 years to power their lives, whereas solar energy systems cost about $25,000 to $30,000 up front. The question of whether you’d rather pay a small sum now or a large sum later, King says, is one people simply don’t know to ask.
Home buyers might also be inclined to assume that sustainability and curb appeal are mutually exclusive, which need not always be the case. “The main objective of the Solar Decathlon is to prove that solar works, and also solar is really beautiful,” King says. “These are real houses that you want to live in.”
Unfortunately, no one will be living in Sure House just yet. Now that the competition is over, Stevens Institute is delivering the model to a Jersey Shore town, where it will serve as an information resource and community outreach center. But as the cost of solar electricity continues to decline and more people prioritize sustainable living, chances are Sure House won’t remain a prototype forever.