Innovative Ways to Make Your Home More Sustainable

Highlights from the 2017 Solar Decathlon in Denver.

By: Kassondra Cloos

Photo By: Josh Bauer/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Kassondra Cloos

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Josh Bauer/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Kassondra Cloos

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Photo By: Kassondra Cloos

Photo By: Josh Bauer/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

2017 Solar Decathlon

At this year’s Solar Decathlon, 11 teams of students from the United States and Europe competed to build the most efficient and best-designed solar-powered homes. They built their homes in their own communities, then took them apart, shipped them to Denver, and reassembled them on the site of the competition, run by the Department of Energy. Here are just a few of the innovative touches that make these homes unique.

Upfall Shower

By filtering, cleaning, and recycling the water you use during, the Dutch Upfall Shower uses just a fraction of the water you waste with a standard shower. The Netherlands team, from HU University of Applied Science Utrecht, paired this system with a toilet with a built-in bidet and blow dryer, eliminating the need for toilet paper.

Exposed Wires

The exposed wires here might initially appear to be part of an unfinished room, but the design is actually a wise attempt to prevent construction waste later down the line. By keeping pipes and wires exposed throughout the house, the team from the Netherlands is avoiding the need to break into a wall to identify or fix a leak or electrical problem if one ever occurs.

Moveable Walls

When you’re entertaining, sometimes what you really need is just a few more square feet in your living room. The team from the University of California, Berkeley and University of Denver, which took third place in the competition, has a solution: walls that slide back to the sides of your house to create space where you need it most. These walls hang by a track system in the ceiling, and they’re light enough to move without much effort. Using Murphy beds that fold away quickly when needed allows for the greatest versatility of the space.

Smart Bathroom

The shower in this bathroom designed by students from the University of California, Davis monitors your water use and changes the color of the LEDs lighting up the water when you start wasting too much. Your shower turns green at 2.5 gallons, blue when you’ve used 5, purple when you’ve used 7.5, and red when you’ve wasted 10.

Solar Oven

Why buy a dehydrator when you could just harness the power of the sun right in your house? This solar oven in the University of Maryland’s second-place house dehydrates fruits, veggies, and meats thanks to heat from the sun channeled through the racks by vents above. The oven tucks away into the ceiling when you’re not using it.

Convertible Sunroom

These transparent walls slide into one another quickly and easily, instantly converting the deck into a toasty sunroom and greenhouse on cold or rainy days. On warmer days, the walls and ceiling slide open to let in cool breezes, just like a normal, airy patio. The versatility of the space adds tons of square footage to this home designed by students at Northwestern University.

Mirrored TV

By setting the television behind a mirror and flanking it with greenery on either side, Northwestern University students took the focus of their living room away from electronics. The back of the TV is easily accessed through a closet in the master bedroom, just behind this wall. They spent hours talking with members of the community around their school, with the goal of building a home that would never need to be renovated to accommodate an aging couple through every stage of their lives. The space is wide open to make it fully wheelchair accessible, and a flex room and guest bathroom are ready for a live-in caretaker.

Tornado-Proof Walls

The walls of this home, built by students at Washington University - St. Louis, are made of layers of concrete, insulation, and ultra-high performance concrete, UHPC, making it virtually tornado-proof. Before bringing the house to Denver for the competition, students shot two-by-fours at it with a tornado cannon to test the durability of the walls. The home was barely scratched.

Shared Shower

To maximize space without losing the convenience of having multiple bathrooms, the Alabama team, from University of Alabama at Birmingham and Calhoun Community College, built two separate bathrooms that share the same shower. Each bathroom has a separate entrance, toilet, and sink, but the shower serves as the fourth wall. Opaque sliding doors offer privacy.

Moss Wall

This moss wall on the back side of the home built by University of California, Berkeley and University of Denver students isn’t just aesthetic—it’s also doing a favor for neighbors. The moss tiles sequester carbon and clean the air around the house.

Dry Composting Toilet

Putting a composting toilet in your home sounds like a smelly hassle, but the Swiss students from École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, School of Engineering and Architecture Fribourg, Geneva University of Art and Design, and University of Fribourg who built this one swear it doesn’t stink. A plastic separator funnels liquid away and directs solid waste into buckets filled with straw and waste-eating worms. A crank on the front of the toilet brings a fresh bucket to the front when one is full. You only need to empty them every two months—the worms will take care of everything else in between.

Garage Door Solar Panels

The exterior walls of the Swiss Team’s house are lined with solar panels and fold open like garage doors. The position of the doors allows sunlight to hit the panels just right, while also creating an awning over the open areas of the home. Putting solar panels on the walls of the house frees up space on the roof to collect rainwater and plant vegetation, which insulates the house against the sun on hot days

Solar Dryer

From the outside, these look like closets or just thick walls. But they’re more than that—the Swiss Team designed this community center to have built-in solar dryers. Thanks to translucent corrugated plastic doors, the heat from the sun gets trapped here and creates an efficient (and free) dryer as it insulates the rest of the house. Vents circulate warm air to dry your clothes and towels.

Convertible Furniture

Those aren’t exactly cabinets along the right-hand wall of this house built by University of California, Davis students. They’re disguised tabletops. Flip them up to create extra seating when you have a big crowd, and to access storage space hidden behind them.

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