Courtesy of Sena Sugiono

After submitting their application to the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon last October, a team of four Yale undergraduates have now applied to be finalists in the competition. If chosen, they will present their plan in front of judges in Boulder, Colorado, later this month.

The team submitted a design proposal on Feb. 16 for an environmentally friendly solar-powered house based in the Los Angeles area. Composed of three first-year students and a junior, the team has faced various difficulties throughout their design and development process, including a lack of expertise and having to work virtually.  However, they were able to successfully overcome these challenges and will now be competing in the final round of the competition. The team is led by Sena Sugiono ’24 and faculty advisor Michael Oristaglio, head of the Energy Studies Program at Yale.

“Obviously as [first-year] students, you can’t have a strong background in architecture and design, but they’ve dug into the project and produced a really neat concept and then followed through actually fully [designing] the building and renderings that are very appealing,” Oristaglio said. 

The team designed their house with shipping containers, which, according to Oristaglio, is a common design method. However, he commended the way they uniquely arranged the shipping containers to enhance the design and maximize the available square footage. The initial design, which the team submitted in October, was to arrange the shipping containers either side by side, in a spoke pattern or in a hexagonal pattern. After submitting their initial project summary, the team altered their design plans, Oristaglio explained. They decided to arrange the shipping containers in a “V-shaped pattern” with the solar panels “bridging a space in between,” successfully opening up the space.

Oristaglio said that by implementing this design, the team was able to open up the floor plan, giving them additional space to configure the interior of the house, and it also allowed for a “semi-private” outdoor area between the two large containers. He said that this idea possibly contributed to the team’s success.

Despite the team’s accomplishment in putting together the final model, they had to overcome a series of challenges throughout their design and development process.

“We are a team that has very limited support in terms of institutional support,” Mary Chen ’23, who is also a public editor at the News, said. “We have our advisor professor, but we also don’t really have a lot of team members and experiences that help us.”

None of the members on the team had extensive experience in architecture, policy or engineering, which were highly required for the successful completion of the project. To overcome this, Chen said that everyone on the team had to do “a little bit of everything,” and they just had to “fill in the gaps where needed.” 

Last semester, after finishing the recruitment process, the team was made up of 13 members, but with the added stress of online learning and unprecedented conflicts, many of the original members stepped down from the team, Sugiono explained. 

The team also had to work over several different time zones. Sugiono, who is currently at home in Indonesia, said it was hard to change his schedule to coincide with the rest of the team.

These challenges made the design and development process especially difficult, but after hours of hard work, the team submitted their final 62-page proposal on Mar. 30.

After submitting their initial proposal last fall, it was reviewed by a committee of members in the U.S. Department of Energy, who provided the team with thorough feedback, which they then had to implement into their finalized design proposal. Sugiono told the News that this feedback pointed out the underdeveloped areas of their submission, which included issues with “compliance with local building codes.”

The team revised their project, taking these suggestions into consideration, and was able to design a house which met all of the competition requirements.

The final product was a solar-powered house with a score of -14 on the HERS Index, which determines the energy efficiency of a standard home. According to Sugiono, this negative score means that the house produces more energy than what it consumes.

In addition to being energy-efficient, the house is also cost-efficient, according to Sugiono. 

“The housing will cost $50,000 per house, which is on a per square foot basis,” Sugiono said. “It’s roughly half the cost of the average house in the U.S. and only 40 percent the average cost of housing in California, so we feel that we have done quite a good job with regards to cost minimization.”

Sugiono pointed out that this cost efficiency was one of the main goals of the project. He explained that the team did not want to design a house that would require a significant financial contribution to build. Rather, they wanted to design a house that would be practical to build from an economic perspective. 

The team modeled their house in the Los Angeles area, using the square footage pricing of the area and the city’s building codes. This area has steep housing prices and is expecting an increase in homelessness due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so the team wanted to provide a solution that would be reasonable to implement. To them, it was a lot more than a competition.

“The competitions are exciting, but the potential for this project is even more exciting for me,” Sugiono said. 

The final round of the competition will be held in Boulder from April 15 through April 18, according to Oristaglio.

Nicole Rodriguez |

Nicole Rodriguez currently serves as a Science and Technology editor for the Yale Daily News. She previously covered the Astronomy Department, intramurals and Crew as a staff reporter. Originally from New York, she is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin majoring in economics.