UMN Students Shine at Solar Decathlon

June 22, 2023

University of Minnesota students are hungry for interdisciplinary learning experiences that reflect contemporary design practice and tackle the complexity of design in the era of climate change. This was reflected in the unprecedented outpouring of interest in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2023 Solar Decathlon Design Challenge. Hosted at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), the decathlon invites college students from around the world to design high-performance net-zero energy buildings that simultaneously promote environmental sustainability and social equity.

​Interest in the competition started in the NorthStar Building Science Club but quickly spread as students from across the University heard about the opportunity to use their skills outside of the classroom and to collaborate with students from other disciplines. Participants ranged from first-year to graduate-level students and included a variety of programs: architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, construction management, mechanical engineering, and sustainable systems management. There was such a large turnout that students organized themselves into two groups, which allowed them to participate in two divisions, the Attached Housing Division and the Multifamily Building Division. 

Students work on their ideas for the Solar Decathlon.

For the Attached Housing Division, the “Phillips ReGen” team retrofit a century-old masonry building in the Phillips Neighborhood. Using an innovative approach, the team members turned the building into a durable, resilient, net zero energy building that addresses the local need for affordable home ownership. The “NorthStar Modular” team, which competed in the Multifamily Building Division, transformed a failed public housing site in the Near North Neighborhood into a healthy living environment for a community of growing families by incorporating modular construction, biophilic principles, and trauma-informed design. Both projects demonstrate the complicated nature of the housing crisis facing the Twin Cities today and champion the importance of building relationships across disciplines early in the design process.

Students kicked off the design process with a charrette in the Rapson Courtyard using architectural precedents, passive design strategies, and community research. Faculty from across the University and local practitioners shepherded the discussions as students explored integrated design options. Over the course of the academic year, students continued to partner with a wide variety of local professionals to develop their projects and address real-world problems facing their community.

Throughout the academic year, students exercised their skills and developed new ones as they tackled the ten challenges of the competition. Factory tours, site visits, and one-on-one discussions with local professionals were invaluable learning experiences for students. Each conversation was an insightful opportunity to share expertise and make the leap from design principles to actionable strategies.

Students in the Solar Decathlon present their work to professionals.

In April 2023, representatives from both teams traveled to Golden, Colorado to present their work at NREL headquarters. Each team demonstrated an innovative approach to the unique challenges facing the built environment today: implementing environmentally regenerative design, balancing the costs of high performance and affordability, and marrying cultural and technical transformation. In addition to the presentations, students toured NREL and were given an exciting sneak peek at cutting-edge research and development as part of the nationwide transition to renewable energy.

The University of Minnesota made an exceptionally strong impression during the event, taking home three trophies: second place in the Multifamily Division and first place in the Attached Housing Division. The first-place winners then went on to win the Solar Decathlon’s grand prize, the competition's highest honor, a multidivisional award given to exemplary student work.

As a purely extracurricular activity, the Solar Decathlon symbolizes a collective commitment to improving the built environment by all of the students, faculty, community partners, and industry sponsors that invested time, energy, and support. For many of the students involved, the Solar Decathlon provided a taste of the interdisciplinary projects they dream of contributing to as professionals. Its emphasis on real-world problem-solving and industry engagement provides a safe space for student-led learning to be nurtured and applied. Students hope that their success will pave the way for future teams by solidifying the University of Minnesota’s involvement in the competition.

This article was written by Jacob Dommer.

Members of the Solar Decathlon teams pose with their trophies.
Representatives from both teams at the 2023 Solar Decathlon.

Project Credits:

Multifamily Building Division: NorthStar Modular Team

Project Leads: Jacob Dommer, Madeleine Hallberg, Shane Herb, and Will Barford.
Faculty Leaders: William Weber Jr and Peter Hilger
Team Members: Raz Perl, Wen Du, Marie Brehm, Sam Buttram, Than Duong, Hannan Minhas, Kennawak Geneti, Jack Archer, Clara Harter, and Ryan Getz.
Industry Partners: Minneapolis Public Housing Authority, RISE Modular, UrbanWorks, Midwest Mechanical Solutions, Center for Sustainable Building Research, University of Minnesota Duluth National Resources Research Institute, and Viatechnik.

The NorthStar Modular Team
Members of the NorthStar Modular Team. Photo credit: Hannan Minhas
A rendering of the 2023 Solar Decathlon NorthStar Healthy Homes.
A rendering of the 2023 Solar Decathlon NorthStar Healthy Homes project.

Attached Housing Division: Phillips ReGen Team

Project Leads: Phoebe McCartan, Autumn Saign, Alice Lesch, and Megan Winkler.
Faculty Leaders: Patrick Huelman and Peter Hilger
Team Members: Savannah Forstie, Muahmong Vang, Jacquelyn Wyman, Kavinesaan Karpaya, Benjamin Oman, Cadence Nelson, Ella Johnstad, Jack Kruchten, Madison McCullough, Nicholas Reynolds, Anke Wiersma, and Anna-Bella Sawyer-Ewing.
Industry Partners: City of Lakes Community Land Trust, Copeland Building Envelope Consulting, Hope Community, Marvin, Midwest Mechanical Solutions, and Darcy.

2023 Solar Decathlon Phillips ReGen Team
Phillips ReGen Team, Photo credit: Rachel Kraft Mattson
2023 Solar Decathlon rendering of Phillips ReGen project
A rendering of the Phillips ReGen project.