Next year, a group of Yale students will build a solar-powered house on West Campus and ship it to California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s biennial Solar Decathlon.

This will mark the first time Yale students have been selected to participate in the competition, in which collegiate teams are challenged to design, construct and operate a solar-powered house. The event will bring together over 20 teams from across the country for a series of 10 contests, during which the solar-powered houses will be evaluated based on factors such as architecture, engineering, appliances and home entertainment. Houses must be able to complete tasks such as cooking, as well as be aesthetically appealing, livable and affordable.

“It’s a big deal,” said Michael Oristaglio, executive director of Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) and one of the team’s faculty sponsors. “Michelle [Addington] and I are the faculty sponsors, but it’s really the students who — starting essentially now until the fall of 2015 — will construct an entire house.”

Team leaders Kate McMillan ’16 and Juan Pablo Ponce de Leon ’16, both architecture majors, found out about the Solar Decathlon in the fall and decided to apply in November. In barely over a month, the pair recruited five other team members, helped raise $76,000 for the project, drafted designs for the solar-powered house, wrote a technical report and contacted potential faculty advisors. Ponce de Leon said the team is planning to recruit more members this month to help with the project.

According to electrical engineering professor Minjoo Lee, a key participant of the team, the main challenge will be creating a house that is beautiful, functional and specifically designed to be energy efficient.

Ponce de Leon said when he and his teammates told one of their advisors, architecture professor Michelle Addington, that they had been selected, the first thing Addington said was “Congratulations,” shortly followed by “I’m scared.”

“There’s a lot of excitement, but at the same time we realize we have a tight time schedule,” Ponce de Leon said.

McMillan said everything in the house, which team members have termed the “Y-House,” has been designed to serve a hypothetical occupant. She added that someone living in the house must be able to take 15-minute showers, watch a full-length movie and charge an electric car enough to drive around in it.

Robert Loweth ’16, project engineer for the team, said the house must create all its own energy using solar panels. Points are deducted if the house consumes significant energy from the grid, he said. Additionally, the house needs to be portable, meaning that it needs to be constructed in a way so that it can easily be broken into parts.

Iwona Chałuś ’16, the project’s lead electrical engineer, said solar power will not only enable the house to be energy independent but will also reduce its carbon footprint. While solar power is not a new approach, Chałuś said it has yet to see widespread use in houses across the U.S. The idea is to provide a house that will be affordable for an average American family, she said.

Each team is required to hire an architect and engineer to certify their designs, said Thaddeus Lee ’17, the only freshman member in the group. The team has reached out to various organizations both on and off campus for assistance, including YCEI, Turner Construction, Reclamation Lumber, IBM and the Yale Center for Business and the Environment.

“We’re a new team, which means we have to start from scratch, unlike some of the other teams who have infrastructure. Eight are returning teams, which means they’ve done this before,” said XinXin Xu ’16, who is in charge of finances for the team.

Xu estimates the house will cost around $250,000, plus the cost of shipping the house to California. The final product will likely be 800-900 square feet, over half the size of Bass Café, Loweth said.

According to Oristaglio, the competition will help make more undergraduates aware of sustainable energy. At the graduate and faculty level, Oristaglio said there is tremendous awareness of the issues surrounding energy today and what the energy landscape will look like in 20 years but that awareness often does not translate directly to undergraduates.

“The initiative started by Pablo and Kate [will] increase interest in solar energy and sustainable design at Yale,” said Jon-Jon Lam ’16, vice president of the Yale Undergraduate Energy Club. “This project is probably going to get people more excited about starting their own project.”

The team is holding an informational meeting in the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design to recruit more members on Feb. 27.

Building Houses, Building Teams