Students from Australia’s University of Wollongong in collaboration with TAFE Illawarra Institute beat out an international assemblage of 19 competing teams to take top honors in the first-ever Solar Decathlon China, which wrapped up late last week in the rather provocative host city of Datong.

In an interesting twist, Team UOW’s entry, a leaky 60s-era suburban fibro house transformed into a net-zero energy showstopper, is the first retrofitted abode to appear in any Solar Decathlon and, as far as I know, the first competing home to be designed under stringent Living Building Challenge guidelines.

Team UOW was also the first team hailing from Down Under to gain entry into a Solar Decathlon, which, in addition to the Chinese edition also includes the original biennial U.S. event and a European counterpart held in Madrid. A team from Victory University of Wellington in New Zealand scored third overall at the 2011 U.S. Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. with First Light House.

The home, dubbed Ilawarra Flame House, scored an impressive 957.7 out of a possible 1,000 points while coming in first in the Architecture, Engineering, and Solar Application contests. E-Concave from Team SCUT (South China University of Technology and Huazhong University of Science and Technology) and Halo House from Team Sweden (Chalmers University of Technology) proved to be fierce contenders throughout the competition placing second and third, respectively. Team Israel’s I4E House also had a strong showing placing second in the all-important Architecture contest.

Designed and built by over 50 students and faculty members, UOW’s remarkable home was inspired by the “spring time renewal and transformation” of the Illawarra Flame Tree, a native species to and natural icon of Australia’s eastern seaboard. The target audience for the home is aging empty-nesters looking to downsize into more modest and efficient digs. Naturally, the home heavily promotes outdoor living.

The mission behind lawarra Flame House in a nutshell:

Team UOW Australia has taken up the challenge of choosing to demonstrate how to retrofit a 'fibro' home, to transform it into a sustainable 21st century net-zero energy home. The aim is to upgrade an existing building to inspire Australian homeowners and the local and national building industry, and to accelerate the development and adoption of advanced building energy technology in new and existing homes.

Through the application of innovative technology and clever design, the Illawarra Flame showcases a radical, yet affordable and achievable blueprint – a benchmark for retrofitting a typical Australian ‘fibro’ house. Our philosophy is to transform existing houses into stylish, affordable and sustainable homes for the future.

The fibro home is a distinctive expression of Australian domestic architecture. These houses were built in great numbers during the post-war period to a standard design, using a minimum of materials. They are ubiquitous to the suburban streets of Australia's capitals and regional centres.

We believe that this retrofitting approach has the greatest practical potential to achieve significant economic and environmental gains across the Australian domestic built environment. When compared to a new-build project, the Illawarra Flame presents a challenge that is intensified by the physical form of the existing building and by the social and cultural values, and expectations, that come with the history and context of the existing building.

Good stuff. Elaborates project manager Lloyd Niccol to The Australian: “We have around eight million homes existing in Australia.The problem is our residential housing sector contributes 13 per cent of our carbon emissions and we want to try and retrofit our existing homes, which are probably using far more energy than they need to." He adds: “We don't want to sit in our ivory tower and design something that can't be done.”

In addition to extensive retrofitting work (bedrooms were removed, modular POD structures and decking were added, the foundation and roof structures were redesigned, etc.) that allowed for the home to be assembled, disassembled, transported via shipping containers, reassembled, and then broken down once again, the home boasts a long laundry list of energy-saving features that helped win it the top spot at SD China: A 9.4 kW photovoltaic system, LED lighting throughout, an energy management system, a thermal mass wall made from 90 percent recycled materials, shading systems, double-glazed windows, improved insulation, and an innovative thermal PV air conditioning system that incorporates phase change materials (PCMs).

And that's just the beginning.

The use of eco-friendly and upcycled materials abound throughout the project while the home’s water-conserving features are just as impressive as its efficiency on the energy front: A reed-bed based greywater treatment system, rainwater harvesting, drought-resistant landscaping, and much more. Composting and a full-blown aquaponics system both “significantly reduce household waste, provide fertility to the landscape and grow a variety of vegetable species and edible fish with minimal input or maintenance.” 

Illawarra Flame House was designed over a course of two years and built over a 12-week span before it was shipped to China and rebuilt in 12 short days. Now that the competition has come to a close, the home will once again be disassembled and shipped back to New South Wales where it will be rebuilt at the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong's Innovation Campus.

Team UOW Faculty advisor Paul Cooper details the home’s post-SD afterlife: “There it will be opened regularly to the public, and become a part of the SBRC Living Laboratory program. Importantly, it will provide not only a test bed for new sustainable building technologies, but a vehicle to accelerate the adoption of sustainable retrofit technologies for homes in Australia and overseas.”

Adds Cooper: “I am so proud of the tremendous effort that our students have put in over the past two years. From the initial planning, through detailed design, and then finally the construction of our house in both Wollongong and China, I cannot describe how much it means for the team to be awarded first place in the Solar Decathlon China 2013.”

A hearty congrats to Team UOW on the big win at the Solar Decathlon China. They truly thought outside of the box on this one and, obviously, all the hard yakka paid off. Lots more info on Illawarra Flame House including a ton of photos of the home during the construction and public walk-through phases at the project website. You can also read Solar Decathlon honcho Richard King's closing remarks here

Via [The Australian]

More Solar Decathlon goodness:

• Jersey score: Team Stevens readies for battle at the 2013 Solar Decathlon

• Au revoir D.C.! Solar Decathlon relocates to sunny Southern California

• WVU team intros log home, a first for Solar Decathlon

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

Australia scores first at inaugural Solar Decathlon China
Team UOW takes first in the Solar Decathlon China with Illawarra Flame House, a deep-green retrofit of a leaky staple of suburban Australia.