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House design for 2021 Solar Decathlon
April 8, 2021

Team from UW-Madison and UW-Milwaukee to compete in Solar Decathlon finals

Written By: Kathy Quirk


Built in Milwaukee for Milwaukee. That’s the goal of the joint entry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee that is competing in the 2021 Solar Decathlon finals.

The U.S. Department of Energy sponsors the decathlon competition for architectural designs that are energy efficient. As they have for the past six years, UW-Milwaukee architecture students are partnering with mechanical engineering students at UW-Madison on their entry.

The team has chosen to enter in the urban single family house category, and is submitting a design for a house that the City of Milwaukee could build on vacant lots, according to architecture student Joe Peletis, who designed the house selected for this year’s entry.

“Milwaukee is trying to solve the problem of lots of vacant lots around the city,” Peletis says. “We’re trying to give them a solution that they can use on any of those vacant lots.”

What makes this house different from previous Solar Decathlon entries is that it’s designed specifically for the city of Milwaukee, says Cara Walls. She is one of the nine UW-Milwaukee architecture students working with 11 UW-Madison mechanical engineering students on the project.

“We designed it so it could be pre-manufactured, so it would be less expensive for the city,” Walls says. “With that comes a certain adaptability so that this house can fit on different lots and different orientations. That’s a big part of this project.”

This year’s Solar Decathlon Design Challenge, which will be held April 16-18, 2021, in Golden, Colorado, will once again be virtual because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team has already been chosen as one of 61 finalists and will present its design with a written report and a 20-minute video submitted to national reviewers before the event. Architecture Professor Mark Keane is working with the UW-Milwaukee group. Mike Cheadle, a mechanical engineering lecturer, is working with the UW-Madison students.

The collaboration is a good learning experience for both the architecture and engineering students on the team, Keane says, giving both groups a chance to learn more about the other profession’s approach to saving energy.

“Collaboration between architects and engineers is a common practice in the professional world,” says Riley Ley, one of the UW-Madison mechanical engineering students involved in the project. “The balance between innovation and feasibility can be seen in many aspects of the design including the renewable energy system and the mechanical room.”

UW-Madison mechanical engineering student Tyler Neutgens says the experience of working on a collaborative, real-world project was valuable.

“The knowledge I got through this project was more than the basics of building a home but also the organization, communication and responsibility that comes with any given project,” Neutgens says.

The goal of the competition is to create sustainable homes that fight climate change by reducing energy consumption, according to Keane. Ley noted that the need for lower operating costs is particularly acute in low-income neighborhoods. “The fight against climate change cannot be separated from the environmental injustice that is experienced greatest in low-income communities,” Ley says.

The team’s entry is a three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot house with two bathrooms, natural wood finishes, rich white millwork and energy saving light fixtures which can be managed with a smartphone. Energy saving features include R-50 insulation and a pre-installed photovoltaic system to collect solar energy.

Energy efficiency is increasingly necessary as people become more environmentally conscious, and is becoming an important part of code compliance, Peletis says. “At the same time, we wanted the house to be aesthetically pleasing and comfortable,” Peletis says.

The students researched other Milwaukee housing to find a style that could be modernized but still would fit into the community. “We didn’t want it to look like a super random house placed there,” Walls says.

Designing a house that could be pre-manufactured in four parts, then put in place on the site, was an important consideration for the team. “If pieces are done in the factory, it can go together rather quickly,” Peletis says. “It also reduces construction waste.”

Walls says another goal of the design is to make such modular housing more appealing, overcoming some stigmas attached to it. “We wanted a house that people would want to live in that had curb appeal,” she says.

If the city is able to get funding, a house based on the design could be built in the Josey Heights/Walnut Circle area, according to Walls. Another step would be development of a facility to build the pre-manufactured housing, possibly in the 30th Street Corridor.

The students have been working closely with local government, joining the City-County Task Force on Climate and Economic Equity. The hope, says Walls, is that as money becomes available through future green infrastructure funding, that funding might help pay for some of those housing projects.