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How student-built solar homes can help solve US housing and energy crisis

Few of the homes created by university teams in the Solar Decathlon are ever lived in – despite their extraordinary expense and tax on the environment. Instead of building temporary show houses, schools should build energy-efficient homes for local people who need them.

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Another affordable, net-zero house is under construction in North Minneapolis, and a third is in development at the school. “Our goal is to show that green housing is affordable to everyone,” explains Mr. Fisher.

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Katie Swenson, vice president of National Design Initiatives for Enterprise Community Partners – a leading advocate and funder of green affordable housing across the country – shares many of Fisher’s concerns.

And yet Ms. Swenson sees value in the process as an academic experience. “I’ve heard countless young designers say that they were transformed by the Solar Decathlon,” she explains. “...However, the question of what happens afterward really is concerning.”

Swenson points to one promising example, where last year’s Solar Decathlon entrants from Parsons School of Design in New York focused on the revitalization of an actual DC neighborhood, rather than a hypothetical one.

Their cleverly titled “Empowerhouse” is one of two side-by-side homes built in partnership with Habitat for Humanity’s DC affiliate, Enterprise, and other contributors. One of the homes was built on-site, while the other was constructed on the Mall, dissembled, relocated, and rebuilt next door. Still under construction, the two homes have families awaiting their completion.

Since 2004, architecture professor John Quale has done similar work at the University of Virginia through the ecoMOD housing line, which grew out of the school’s Solar Decathlon entry and a partnership with the Piedmont Housing Alliance and Habitat for Humanity in Charlottesville.

Rather than shipping materials around the world, truly sustainable homes would be built with locally sourced materials and labor. This makes sense from a cost-saving standpoint alone, but it’s also a way to stimulate local economies, incentivize homebuilders, and raise expectations of homebuyers.

In a speech last month, Energy Secretary Steven Chu extolled, “As President Obama made clear in the State of the Union address…we need to ensure that the next generation of America’s architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs have the hands-on experience and training they need to lead our nation’s clean energy future.”

This kind of collaborative, hands-on construction and clean energy experience shouldn’t be so rare for architecture and engineering students. Communities across the country – and world – need energy-efficient, affordable homes right now.

The Solar Decathlon has shown that architecture and engineering students can create beautiful, efficient homes. The Department of Energy should greatly improve the program, however, by instead putting it to work in places where it’s needed most, through partnerships with local housing entities like Common Ground, Habitat for Humanity, Home, Inc., and others working on the ground to provide affordable housing.

John Cary is the founder of PublicInterestDesign.org and author of “The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients.” He writes and speaks widely on architecture, design, public service, and social justice.

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