Friday, December 1, 2023
The national award-winning house designed by University of Wyoming students for the Solar Decathlon has been constructed in the Red Canyon area south of Lander. It’s been named one of the top two U.S. entries in the competition. Wyoming PBS photo

Top-ranked House for Energy Efficiency Showcased on Next ‘Wyoming Chronicle’

A solar-powered house designed by Wyoming students is one of the most-energy efficient new houses on Earth.  The University of Wyoming’s prize-winning entry in the annual global Solar Decathlon is featured on the next installment of “Wyoming Chronicle” on Wyoming PBS. Three members of the solar decathlon student design team, plus a top faculty adviser, met “Wyoming Chronicle” host Steve Peck at the innovative house south of Lander near Red Canyon.

Using the students’ design, local contractor Timshel Construction agreed to build the house in exchange for being allowed to sell it on the market once it was complete. In the meantime, the structure named Wind River House by the designers rose quickly through the ranks of all Solar Decathlon competitors and emerged as the second-ranked house in the United States, and fourth globally. The distinction between first- and second-place is considered largely moot, because the two designs and locations of the houses are so different. The first-place structure, designed by Ball State University students in Indiana, is a multi-family dwelling in an urban setting, while the Wyoming entry is a single-family house in a decidedly rural locale in the lower Wind River Mountains.

Competing houses must rely on solar energy as their primary source of power. The Wind River house employs a combination of solar panels built into the roof, and carefully engineered collection of windows, and other design features built to maximize passive solar energy.

The ideas worked well; during the winter construction season this year the indoor temperature of the house was maintained at 64 degrees or warmer without the solar panels operating. Outside temperatures average in the mid-20s during much of the construction period. Architectural engineering student Alison Carlo says one of the team’s top objectives was designing and building a house that was both affordable and “livable” for a typical Wyoming family. Some construction elements cost more than typical components, but the price premiums were not so great as to prevent economical construction. And, the designers stress,
expected energy costs for the life of the house are zero. Energy savings tied to the efficient construction of the house are calculated to cover the added cost of construction in as little as seven years.

Faculty adviser Tony Denzer of UW emphasizes that all construction materials and mechanical systems are readily available commercially in the United States, and the construction itself is well within the capabilities of any qualified building contractor, electrician and plumber.

Hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy, the competition is called a decathlon because all of the student designs must address a list of 10 criteria including energy efficiency, durability, sustainability, market factors, desirability, and occupant comfort. Ph.D mechanical engineering student Emanuel Iddio said all 10 decathlon criteria are strengths of the Wind River House. The structure placed first in three of the categories.

“The message is that this isn’t far off in the future,” Denzer says in the interview. “Zero- energy houses are feasible and practical right now. Wyoming home builders do this. There’s a slight premium… on the front end, then you’re going to have essentially zero energy bills for the life of the house.”

The design and specifications of the house are in the public domain and available to anyone. “Wyoming Chronicle” airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 17. The show is repeated at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, and again at noon Sunday. Following Friday’s premiere, the installment also will be posted in perpetuity online at wyoming, as well as on the Wyoming PBS YouTube channel.