The results are in: Stevens Institute of Technology rocked the 2015 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, like a, well, hurricane.

One of three storm resiliency-minded entrants in this year’s edition of the collegiate solar home design/build/perform showdown, Stevens’ competing abode, a laid-back yet tough-as-nails reimagining of the humble surf shack specifically designed for vulnerable post-Superstorm Sandy coastal communities in New York and New Jersey, emerged from the 2-week-long competition with a winning overall score of 950 points out of 1,000 maximum points.

Stevens' high-performance and storm-ready home, dubbed SURE HOUSE, provided the Solar Decathlon with one of its least nail bite-y competitions in recent memory as the team held steady at the top of the scoreboard placing first in four of the five juried contests: Market Appeal, Communications, Architecture and Engineering.

The one juried contest that Stevens didn’t win, Affordability, was won in a tie by UC Davis (seventh place with 843 points) and Mass/Central America (14th place with 585 points). Both of these teams achieved target construction costs of under $250,000.

Architecture contest juror Ann Edminster remarks: “The Stevens design stacks up very favorably against many homes designed by seasoned architectural teams, and in fact outstrips the vast majority of U.S. houses when it comes to energy performance. The love of community that drove this design inspired a highly effective collaboration, in turn giving rise to an exceptionally well-integrated final product that will benefit both the occupants and their larger community.”

This was Stevens third showing at the biennial event. The Hoboken, New Jersey-based research university scored fourth at 2013’s competition, also held in Irvine, and 13th place at the 2011 Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. as part of a joint team with Parsons the New School For Design.

Final standings in 2015 U.S. Solar DecathlonCredit: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Boasting a nifty multitasking solarium-cum-greenhouse, GRoW Home from first-time contender State University of New York at Buffalo took second place overall with 941 points. Grow Home scored well in the measured contests while placing within the top five in all of the juried contests.

Third place went to return contender Cal Poly's INhouse (910 points) while Texas/Germany (the University of Texas at Austin and Technische Universitaet Muenchen) and six-time (!) Solar Decathlon contender Missouri University of Science & Technology rounded out the top five with 887 and 878 points, respectively, for NexusHaus and Nest Home.

Team Orange County — a joint effort between University of California, Irvine; Chapman University; Irvine Valley College; Saddleback College — served as the competition’s “hometown” team and scored ninth place overall for the drought-resistant beauty, Casa del Sol. And as for the two competing California schools with a heated sports rivalry, UC Davis triumphed over Sacramento State with Aggie Sol, a thoughtfully executed take on criminally substandard farm laborer housing.

SURE House, the winning entrant in the 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon from Stevens Institute of TechnologyAll smiles: A student from the Stevens Institute of Technology's multi-disciplinary team preps SHORE HOME for the big competition. (Photo: Thomas Kelsey/U.S Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Jersey Score!

As mentioned, this year’s Solar Decathlon was relatively upset-free as Stevens, one of the smallest schools in the competition, continually presided over the top of the scoreboard. Although I didn’t take as close of look at all of the competing homes prior to the event as I have in past years (nor did I get an in-person sneak-peek of the Stevens home pre-competition as I have in the past), I did spend time sizing up SHORE HOUSE. I could just tell, even back in August, that it was going to be a fierce contender.

Between the commentary on extreme weather, the mega-informative website, the surfboard-laden renderings and the emphasis on both innovative engineering and casual coastal living, SHORE HOUSE was a winner even before the next-gen beach bungalow was dissembled and shipped off to Irvine.

Of all the 10 Solar Decathlon contests, I’m perhaps most fascinated by the measured Home Life contest (formerly known as the Home Entertainment contest), which "gauges whether a house has what it takes to be a home.” After all, this is a collegiate competition and the one contest that involves dorm-y activities such as communal meals and chill-out sessions in front of the TV should indeed be an important one.

SURE House, the winning entrant in the 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon from Stevens Institute of TechnologyConsuming 90 percent less energy than conventional homes, SHORE HOUSE also functions as an "emergency community hub" during the aftermath of storm events. (Photo: Thomas Kelsey/U.S Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Stevens placed first in Home Life with a full 100 points — Cal Poly and Missouri S&T came in a close second and third, respectively. For the first of two required dinner parties, Stevens presented a “Stormy Supper” (“Getting gourmet without power”) with an entrée of garbanzo bean and white tuna salad with gazpacho. With mahi-mahi tacos as the main course, the team’s second menu was “Neuva Jersey” — the Garden State meets Southern California, if you will.

But no Taylor Ham?


After SHORE HOUSE is disassembled and shipped back to the East Coast, it will be rebuilt in a yet-to-be-named Jersey Shore town — or potentially Hoboken — where it will live on as a “community outreach center and information resource.”

"We do know that we're going to bring it back to New Jersey," lead faculty advisor John Natasi told following the big win. "We do want to be able to teach little kids in STEM education about energy resilience. ... One thing our house does really, really well is it makes really complicated stuff easy to understand." Natasi adds: "We're so bloody exhausted. This competition is like doing an Iron Man."

SURE House, the winning entrant in the 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon from Stevens Institute of TechnologySHORE HOUSE melds chill, beach-y vibes influenced by classic beach bungalows with cutting-edge green building technology. (Photo: Thomas Kelsey/U.S Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)


Unlike in 2013 (and 2009 and 2007), the 2015 Solar Decathlon winner does not, obviously, hail from a German-speaking European nation. In fact, the 2015 Solar Decathlon, for the time since the competition launched in 2002, was without a standalone international team. Even Canada was absent this time around.

Not to downplay the strengths of SHORE HOUSE but I do wonder if things would have played out differently if Solar Decathlon honcho Richard King hadn’t changed the competition rules so that non-American teams are only allowed to participate if paired with an American team.

"In years past, these foreign teams have come and beat the pants off the American teams and then they run back to their home countries," King explained to Co.Exist. "I want technology transfer. So we get them to work with an American team and build it here and not ship it."

U at Buffalo's GRoW Home took second place at the 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon.A demo inside of GRoW House, a solar-powered abode with a focus on urban gardening from first-time Decathlon contender U at Buffalo. (Photo: Thomas Kelsey/U.S Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

This seems a touch unfair but it does give homegrown talent even more of an opportunity to shine. And a trio of domestic/foreign hybrid teams did indeed participate in this year’s competition: the aforementioned Texas/Germany team (fourth place); West Virginia University and University of Roma Tor Vergata (12th place); and Mass/Central America, a joint team composed of students from Western New England University, Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and Universidad Tecnologica Centroamericana (14th place).

In addition to the international team switch-up, there was also a new measured contest at this year's Solar Decathlon: Commuting.

In this contest, teams must drive an electric vehicle charged from their house electric system several times during the competition. Full points are awarded for driving 25 miles or more in two hours or less eight times during contest week. Reduced points are earned for driving less than the required number of miles.

Eleven of the 14 competing teams received the full 100 points in the Commuting contest. While the Hot Water contest was retired to make way for Commuting, elements of it live on in the Home Life contest.

Team Texas/Austin give an EV a spin as part of the new Commute contest.Fourth place winner Texas/Germany takes an all-electric BMW i3 out for a spin as part of the new Commuting contest. (Photo: Thomas Kelsey/U.S Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

So where'd everyone go?

Also notable about this year’s Solar Decathlon was its small size. And I'm not talking about the 1,000-square-feet-or-less homes on display.

With only 14 competing teams, this year’s event was the smallest in the competition’s history (not counting its inaugural year) with an unprecedented six teams dropping out at various points leading up to the kick-off date including Ivy League-rs Yale and Stanford. Speaking to National Geographic, King blames the high number of withdraws on “a confluence of things” — mostly related to funding. Or lack of funding, rather.

Writes Wendy Koch for NatGeo:

The projects often cost at least $250,000, and DOE gave each team $50,00 in seed money, down from $100,000 in prior years.

Several teams said they couldn’t raise enough money. They get in-kind donations from companies, but they still have to design and build homes, ship them in pieces, and reassemble them within days at the competition.

Yale pulled out less than two months ago, citing inadequate funds. Architecture student Pablo Ponce de Leon, who worked on the project, said Yale’s endowment — one of the largest in the world for universities — is locked in investments or earmarked for other purposes such as building residential colleges.

Koch goes on to explain that in an effort to prevent teams from dropping out from the 2017 Solar Decathlon, the DOE will offer competing teams prize money in lieu of Federal seed money. Totaling $2 million, the prize money awarded to individual teams after the conclusion of the competition would range from $50,000 to $300,000. “You’ll have to show up to get your money,” King says.

Casa Del Sol, Team Orange County's 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon EntryTeam Orange County's hometown abode, Casa del Sol, could potentially remain in Orange County Great Park as an educational hub. (Photo: Thomas Kelsey/U.S Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

As for the location of future Solar Decathlons, that’s also uncertain. Irvine, home to the past two competitions after the event organizers bid adieu to Washington, D.C. in 2011, will reportedly not bid to host again … at least in 2017 and 2019.

From the OC Register:

… Irvine officials recently discovered that the Department of Energy would require the city to pitch in $2 million per event and come up with a different location if it wanted to be considered as host for the two future events.

During a meeting Tuesday, some officials said it felt like the department was sending a signal that it no longer wanted the event at the Great Park. That was a dealbreaker for Irvine.

“We’ve come to the conclusion of a great time hosting it here,” Councilwoman Lynn Schott said. “We do have to be mindful of the budget. It’s an expensive ask.”

The OC Register also reports that during the Solar Decathlon's first public weekend (an ungodly hot one with triple-digit temps), the event suffered from markedly low attendance numbers compared to the 2013 event which drew a crowd of 64,000 visitors over the course of the competition.

The Solar Village at Orange County Great Park, Irvine, California. While more heated than ever, the competition at the 2015 Solar Decathlon was smaller ... and with reportedly less visitors. (Photo: Thomas Kelsey/U.S Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

The future's so bright ...

While Department of Energy organizers commence the search for a new location in which to “expand the Solar Decathlon's outreach, widening its economic impact, and broadening its message about the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency” and a fresh batch of Solar Decathlon hopefuls start to take form for the 2017 event, the 2015 teams are currently still in Orange County packing up, dissembling their homes and gearing up for what I'd imagine is some serious R & R.

Congrats to all.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.