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University of Denver Showcases First-of-Its-Kind Project for Solar Decathlon

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Nika Anschuetz





After COVID-19 delays, 2020 competition has concluded

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The Zoom presentations are over; the final scores have been tallied; and for now, a partially renovated 1950s era home sits quietly on South Race Street, marking the end of the Department of Energy’s 2020 Solar Decathlon competition.

For University of Denver students in the Franklin L. Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management, the process began and ended in the spring. The space between — three years. The Solar Decathlon was postponed last year due to COVID-19.

The biennial competition challenges students to build efficient and innovative structures powered by renewable energy.

This represents the second time DU has competed.  For 2020, the DU team aimed to do a Solar Decathlon first: a net-zero renovation of a single-family home.

According to a DOE analysis, more than 125 million buildings in the United States need retrofits to achieve President Joe Biden’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Faculty advisor Eric Holt, an assistant professor at the Burns School, helped the team navigate the real-world challenges of a renovation during a global pandemic. He calls the Solar Decathlon a living laboratory.

“That’s the beauty of the project. It’s messy. It’s hard. This is what contractors deal with every day,” Holt says.

Drew Shine, a senior in the Daniels College of Business, was one of the project’s leaders. As he sees it, the hands-on learning and the family atmosphere set DU apart from other institutions.

“These kinds of projects are really where learning thrives, by not just learning in the classroom but really getting that hands-on experience and seeing where our education takes us,” Shine says.  

The coronavirus pandemic added more complications into the mix: construction starting and stopping, social distancing on a job site, high turnover, lumber prices spiking and shortages in the supply chain.

“It’s a student project, but they’re dealing with all of the same things that they would deal with if they had taken on this project as a small business owner. It makes for a fantastic learning experience,” Holt says.

The DU team finished ninth in the competition, but the team’s work will have long-lasting impact. As the first team to complete a renovation, DU provides the DOE with an example to encourage more renovation projects.

“All of the judges were extremely encouraging of our vision to renovate existing homes,” Shine says. “It really spoke [to] the fact that it is one of the most important things you can do to make a green future and prevent the pollution during the demolition process.”

Although the competition is over, the DU team still has work to do to finish the house. On April 23, DU’s Earth Day of DU-ing, students will once again fill the home to put the final touches on a vision three years in the making.