Through the Eyes of Tomorrow’s Talent

15 Jul 2019

I’ve had the pleasure of working with talented students from all over the country as part of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Decathlon Design Challenge, and surprisingly, I think I’ve learned more from them than they from me. 

More than 80 university teams participated in the competition to design energy efficient homes that are feasible to build, from easy to source, cost-effective materials. These students gathered from all over the world, submitting 82 designs this year, 40 of which were selected to present to jurors. The teams were judged on the robustness of their designs, the design structures, and overall affordability. 

By using virtual reality to design high-performance buildings able to offset their annual energy consumption with renewable power, these students – studying architecture, construction, and engineering - showed how much they can teach a seasoned leader how to look beyond the bounds of traditional building and construction to envision a more sustainable future. Here are my four takeaways from these extraordinary students:

1 – Go Deep

Whatever the project at hand, make sure you have a deep understanding of the program and its goals. The students in the competition not only had good knowledge of the design space, but also a nuanced understanding of how all the pieces came together. They could speak persuasively to their design choices, discussing, for example, which type of insulation best creates energy efficiencies.

A team from Prairie View A&M University exemplified this “go deep” approach with their modular, community-sourced design. The team avoided getting lost in design details, and kept the context in which the building would exist in mind—in this case, a low-income Houston community at-risk from both environmental and socioeconomic factors. Understanding that affordability and resilience would be key, they used offsite modularized construction to shorten cycle time, increase product efficiencies and construction quality, and lower costs. By going deep, Prairie View A&M could not only design a cool house, but an effective one that considered every conceivable community and construction challenge.

For those of us in the business, the lesson is:

 Whatever the project at hand, make sure you have a deep understanding of the program, its goals, and, perhaps most importantly, its challenges.

2 - Prioritize Resiliency

Without question, resilience is top of mind at the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge. It has been especially interesting to see the growing emphasis on resiliency year over year as student priorities have evolved to create solutions. There should be greater adoption in mainstream construction. One team started its presentation by saying, “we all live in a hurricane-rich zone,” before explaining that, as natural disasters grow in frequency and intensity, every part of the U.S. is at-risk from some form of extreme weather, be it hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, or flooding. Students particularly focused on this last point, recognizing that increased flooding and rising oceans necessitate raised structures. That’s especially true when building in coastal communities. 

The teams considered ultra-energy efficiency, comfort, health, cost-effectiveness, and constructability, but resiliency was present throughout. 

3 - Go High-Tech 

The construction industry faces a variety of challenges, including the need to decrease costs and carbon emissions, and a shortage of skilled labor, all of which can make the actual building of structures more difficult. The university teams accounted for these factors by using mainstream and soon-to-be mainstream technologies. 

For example, to address labor constraints, many teams turned to offsite manufacturing that uses automation. With the labor market continuing to tighten, every design ultimately hinges on the skilled labor needed to complete it. During the design process, students focused on quality and repeatability as critical parts of a great design. To that end, they incorporated both 3D modeling and printing, and automation as important aspects of managing manpower and resource material concerns. Almost all the teams adopted digital software tools like Building Information Modeling (BIM) to help create complex designs. 

Furthermore, every project included the most-advanced photovoltaic engineering; quite a few teams included battery storage for solar energy. Integrating photovoltaics in buildings from the beginning, rather than bolting it on at the end, evolved the level of innovation we saw in the competition’s designs. The team from Virginia Tech took this integration a step further by using blockchain to manage the solar and battery system’s transactions with the electric grid. That was necessary because solar with battery storage feeds energy into the electric grid, and selling electricity is a complex process that depends on time-of-use rates and varying price structures. Blockchain managed that convoluted interchange.  

The tools that students used are familiar to many industry professionals, though it’s a good bet that few use them conjointly. That end-to-end design approach is something that really stuck with me.

4 -  Innovate Now

Because the conference stipulated that everything be either mainstream or close-to-mainstream, it was their entire approach to design that was truly innovative, independent of any exotic or emerging technologies and mediums. 

What was so transformative was the way in which students used the most cutting-edge technologies in every part of their design. The long list included: raising and hardening structures to defend against extreme weather; integrating photovoltaics for sustainability; designing with offsite construction in mind for labor concerns; substituting mini-splits for centralized HVAC when advanced insulations make heating and cooling less intensive, and; using smart technology so each part of the housing construction is constantly talking to the others. 

Most amazingly, every design is possible today. 

In fact, many will be built in the coming months.

As I left the challenge, that was my real takeaway – that we have the ability now to design energy efficient, affordable, and resilient homes. The Solar Decathlon Design Challenge students showed the value of an outside perspective, and we should all take a page from their book. I can’t wait to welcome them to the workforce. 


Laura Dwyer is a global innovation leader for DuPont Performance Building Solutions.

DuPont Performance Building Solutions |


Volume: 2019 July/August