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Residential architects who specialize in the hot, humid, southern climate

The Solar Decathlon


This fall, Clemson University will be one of 20 teams competing in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon in Irvine, Calif. The Solar Decathlon is a competition among collegiate teams to design, build and operate a solar-powered house that exhibits design excellence and optimal energy efficiency.  

Clemson’s team includes architecture, engineering, and social science majors. They have named their project Indigo Pine after two South Carolina crops.

The decathlon has 10 individual contests; five are juried (architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, and affordability) and five are measured (comfort zone, appliances, home life, commuting, and energy balance). 

Some of the measured contest requirements are interesting. For example, in the appliance contest the teams have to wash a given load of towels. The towels are then returned to the jury where they are weighed to determine if they are more dry than before they were washed. In another contest, each house has provide an electric charging station for a car and teams have to drive their electric car a set distance. To ensure that the house is livable, one contest requires the teams host two, eight-person dinner parties for members of other teams. The rules say they must cook “real” food from an approved menu. Movie night for neighbors also is a requirement.

Clemson University Solar Decathlon student Alex Lathan said the goal of the team is to change the way typical home design and construction are thought of long after the competition ends. 

“ Not only is our Sim[PLY] structural system able to be built virtually anywhere, but it can also be constructed using unskilled labor. Furthermore, every element of Indigo Pine is designed to be affordable, efficient, and sustainable,” Lathan said.

Typically, teams ship the entire house by truck. After the Clemson team calculated the carbon footprint of shipping their house, they were determined to find a more sustainable method. They are “emailing” digital files to California and will use a computer-controlled cutting machine (CNC) to cut out the structural system. The system is called Sim[PLY]. It allows the house to be built anywhere there is one of these machines. 

The students are building one version this spring in the South Carolina Botanical Garden at Clemson. This will allow the team to test and perfect the house before building it again in the fall in California. The houses at the Solar Decathlon will be open to the public in October. The houses will be built at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. 

Kate Schwennsen, director and professor of the School of Architecture at Clemson University said the project stands to have a global impact and the Indigo Pine team approached the project with a deep sense of purpose and a high level of innovation. 

“The innovation of this house, in its design and delivery systems, is setting a new paradigm for the competition and creating intellectual capital for the university as it seeks to improve the lives of South Carolina families, South Carolina industries and the planet,” she said. 

To learn more about the Solar Decathlon and to see projects from previous years, go to www.solardecathlon.gov. To learn more about Clemson's Indigo Pine team, go to www.clemson.edu/indigopine.