Northwestern University’s house that is competing in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. Credit: Manasi Kaushik

It’s normal to feel nervous before a dinner party. Will the guests get along, will the avocado toast get burned?

But for Sophie Sisson and other students involved in the “House by Northwestern” project at Northwestern University, the stakes are much higher. A dinner party is one of the final tests in a contest the team has been working on for 17 months: building a fully solar-powered house from the ground up.

The team will ship the house to Denver for the finals of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, where the house’s energy use, solar generation and other indicators will be measured — and where the dinner party will prove that it is functional in a real-life situation.

Last week Sisson and two other Northwestern students showed off the living room where the party will take place, below a roof with an integrated solar array, slanted at the ideal pitch — 24 degrees — for capturing the sun’s power in the Chicago and Denver areas.

Big windows provide ample natural light, and the unfinished walls reveal thick insulation, both reducing electricity use. There will be a Nest smart thermostat and smart appliances from the company Beko. Choosing the right appliances is part of the challenge. Towels will be weighed before and after washing and drying, the students explained, to help ascertain the efficiency of the drier.

A “living wall” of plants will surround the efficient large-screen TV, and a glassed-in sun room and entryway offer passive conditioning, meaning electricity will not be needed to heat or cool them. Windows will also be covered with photocatalytic materials that break down pollutants and essentially self-clean when exposed to sunlight.

Students designed the 994-square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath house with a target demographic in mind: baby boomers, whom surveys show want to stay in their homes as they age. Hence the house is built to be wheelchair-accessible and includes large bathrooms and doorways and space for caretakers.

An electric vehicle is meant to be charged in the garage, and BMW has loaned an electric car for the project. The 22 solar panels incorporated into the roof can generate 6.5 kilowatts, and eight 25 kwh DC batteries can store it and disconnect from the grid or sell energy back to it. The house is meant to have net zero carbon emissions, or better.

“When you see it built like this, you see that no matter how you feel about solar, it just makes sense,” said Lila Reynolds, a 20-year-old journalism student whose interest in sustainability was stoked by a class trip to Panama where indigenous people have been displaced by sea level rise. “You save so much money in the long run. It’s supposed to be net positive in terms of energy and finances.”

Northwestern’s team has included about 50 students over the past year and a half, including a team of six working on the final stages this summer. Many of the team members will travel to Denver, where up to 90,000 people are expected to visit the houses for tours. After the judging, the house will be shipped back to Evanston, Illinois where students will continue giving tours and using the house for public education, including with students at the nearby high school.

After that, the house will be put on the market. The Department of Energy reports that many past solar decathlon houses are now home to families — including in a biological preserve in California and a space research station in Texas — or serve as laboratories. In Rolla, Missouri, there is a small village of past solar decathlon participant houses.

Manasi Kaushik, a 22-year-old graduate student, became interested in the project because she focuses on environmental issues in her photography and documentary film, and she hopes to work for National Geographic. She said she is motivated by the idea that people will actually live in the house. “And, we want to win!” interrupted Reynolds.

The students think they’ll face tough competition from teams in sun-soaked Florida and Las Vegas who have previously competed in the decathlon. The Northwestern house is scheduled for a public unveiling on August 23, and then it will be split into three parts and sent down the highway to be reassembled in Colorado.

The team includes students from various disciplines using their skills for different aspects of the project, including design, engineering, marketing and communications. Sisson, a civil engineering student, is in charge of shepherding the house through the tests in Denver measuring air quality, energy use, lighting and other quantitative factors.

Architects, engineers and a local lumber company have mentored the students, helped with the work and donated materials. Partners include Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill, the renowned architecture firm building the Jeddah Tower in Saudi Arabia, which will be the tallest building in the world.

The next generation

Reynolds noted that the construction team was “all men, all the time,” but the overall team is at least half women, and they’ve observed even more women than men interested in sustainability at Northwestern. In the course of the project, the students said they’ve learned more about construction, engineering and clean energy technology, and they imagine projects like the house will encourage more women to go into the clean building fields. Increasing the number of women and people of color in STEM energy-related fields is one of the Department of Energy’s goals with the decathlon.

“This is really the next generation of builders and designers,” said Maggie Waldron, director of operations and communications for House by Northwestern, which is affiliated with the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern. “Before they’ve even graduated they have the chance to work with the titans of the industry.”

The three women said they all plan to have solar arrays and electric vehicles in the future. “I keep texting my parents, ‘Hey look at these solar panels for when you downsize,’” Reynolds said.

“I’m someone with a guilty conscious” about her environmental footprint, added Kaushik. “Being in a house that’s environmentally friendly makes me feel better.”

Kari has written for the Energy News Network since January 2011. She is an author and journalist who worked for the Washington Post's Midwest bureau from 1997 through 2009. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative, Chicago Reader and other publications. Based in Chicago, Kari covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana as well as environmental justice topics.