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Competition Challenges Students to Design Zero Net Energy Homes

The men and woman engineers walking between rows of photovoltaic panels with blueprint between row of solar panels and checking blueprints using notebook and check quality of mounting.
Engineers walk between rows of solar panels.

As climate change intensifies, many people are looking for ways to decrease their carbon footprint. And one the biggest barriers to leading an eco-friendly life can be our homes. Energy use, water use, and even the food we eat at home can have a huge impact on the environment. So for nearly two decades, the U.S. Department of Energy has held its Solar Decathlon: a competition that invites college students to create eco-friendly building designs.

UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison are recruiting students to design zero net energy homes and those designs will then be available to Wisconsin residents. UW-Milwaukee Professor Mark Keane is leading that recruitment. "The goal is zero net. Wouldn’t it be great to get residential, commercial, architecture off the grid by using the power of the sun to get down to that point," says Keane.

The designs would also address water use. Keane explains that water use reduction design is growing more important as water becomes more precious in the 21st century. "What do we do with the rainwater on our property, and then what do we do with our wastewater once we use it? That can be framed by how the architect or the designer thinks about the site and how to control those avenues of supply," he says.

While zero net energy homes provides a myriad of benefits, Keane notes that it may take awhile for those homes to be commonplace. "It'll be really difficult in our climate to get a lot of low income homes or starter homes for people off the grid until we get to the point where it becomes common. When you start up ideas like this, the first offshoots are much more expensive per unit until you have that volume," Keane explains.

Keane says this is a chance for students to not only create something that could help improve the environment but give them hands on experience as well. "It's great for our students because sometimes in academia, you get too distant from the actual feet-on-the-ground client's needs. So when they actually have to build out their home, they learn that part of the practice too."

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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