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2015 Solar Decathlon - Credit: Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Imagine a beautiful home on the shores of Lake Michigan – large windows looking out at the lake, native grasses adorning the exterior landscaping, and rooftop solar panels soaking up the sun. In fact, this house is so energy efficient that it operates entirely off the grid.


Students and faculty will not only be able to see a home like this on the Northwestern University campus in 2017, they’ll help create it.


Northwestern is one of 16 global teams chosen to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2017 Solar Decathlon College Team Competition. It is Northwestern’s first time both applying for, and competing in, the Solar Decathlon.


In the biennial program, participants are challenged to design and build functional, solar-powered homes, and will compete for $2 million in prize money. The winning team will achieve maximum efficiency and energy production, in combination with a low-cost, appealing design.


Northwestern’s Solar Decathlon team, “House by Northwestern,” will be lead by Dick Co, Camille & Henry Dreyfus Environmental Chemistry Mentor and Research Associate Professor of Chemistry at the Argonne-Northwestern Solar Energy Research (ANSER) Center and co-founder and managing director of the Solar Fuels Institute (SOFI).


“A beautiful, thoughtfully designed, sustainable home is a very powerful image,” said Co. “The technology exists today to build a house radically more efficient than the average home, and seeing is believing.”


Co will lead students through the creation of the solar-powered home in collaboration with partners and supporters - from Illinois Senators Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin, to leaders in the architecture and design industry. These alliances helped carry Northwestern through an extremely competitive application process.


Corporate partners that have committed time and resources to the project include PositivEnergy Practice, a consulting firm that implements carbon reduction strategies, DIRTT, which creates sustainable, prefab modular interior solutions, and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (AS+GG), one of the world’s foremost architecture firms, which designed the Jeddah Tower (formerly Kingdom Tower) in Saudi Arabia, set to be the tallest building in the world.


“AS+GG has been discussing environmental issues with Northwestern for years and was always impressed with the University’s leading research and capabilities,” said Bob Forest, a partner at AS+GG.


“This is the perfect opportunity to collaborate on a real world project to demonstrate solutions to energy efficiency issues, advancing the change needed to make sustainable design and construction practices commonplace.”


Co envisions that the home will be highly modular and adaptive, capable of reconfiguration and evolving with the occupant as needs and circumstances change. House By Northwestern will have a living space filled with highly functional furniture, much of it integrated into the home itself – an expertise that DIRTT will bring to the project.


“DIRTT’s modular systems will allow for unending flexibility and an infinite number of reconfigurations as the occupants grow and change over time,” said Jessie Craigie, a member of DIRTT’s Sustainability Team. “We hope this home will inspire people to build better and to see that technology and sustainability truly go hand in hand.”


While industry partners will bring important expertise to the project, students will truly drive it. Student teams will get hands on experience in architectural design and implementation, engineering, and communications and outreach strategies.


This multidisciplinary experience will truly encompass STEAM education – marrying science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics. The result will be a state-of-the-art, solar-powered home that will be built, toured, showcased, and utilized.

In the coming weeks and months Co will begin holding regular meetings with interested students and partners to determine project teams and begin technical plans. He will also lead the effort to raise over $1 million in funding for this project. The Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN), the primary University supporter of House by Northwestern, will create a special topics course for students to earn academic credit for their involvement in the project beginning Spring 2016.

Co hopes that the House by Northwestern will not only demonstrate how we could already be saving energy and money by using products that are currently available, but will also push students to use their ingenuity to revolutionize sustainable design.

Students, faculty, and partners interested in getting involved in the House by Northwestern or following its progress can visit for updates.


The full list of 2017 Solar Decathlon teams:


  • École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Lausanne, Switzerland)
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Daytona State College (Daytona Beach, Florida)
  • Georgia Institute of Technology (Atlanta, Georgia)
  • HU University of Applied Science Utrecht (Utrecht, Netherlands)
  • Missouri University of Science and Technology (Rolla, Missouri)
  • Northwestern University (Evanston, Illinois)
  • Rice University (Houston, Texas)
  • Syracuse University (Syracuse, New York)
  • University of Alabama at Birmingham (Birmingham, Alabama)
  • University of California at Berkeley (Berkeley, California)
  • University of California, Davis (Davis, California)
  • University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
  • University of Nevada, Las Vegas (Las Vegas, Nevada)
  • Washington State University (Pullman, Washington)
  • Washington University (St. Louis, Missouri)
  • West Virginia University (Morgantown, West Virginia)


Read more in Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern's News and Updates. >>