UH Students Design Energy-Efficient, Affordable Homes

Project Aims to Prepare Students to Work in a More Sustainable Future

A group of University of Houston students have spent the past few months focused on the future of housing.

The Energy Efficiency Innovation Challenge, sponsored by Direct Energy and UH Energy, offers students hands on experience, and ultimately the winning designs could help transform Houston’s Third Ward with energy-efficient, affordable housing.

Winners will be announced at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 27, on the UH campus, with a $6,000 prize to the winning team. Second and third place teams will receive $4,500 and $3,000 respectively. Organizers are forming a coalition to help build the winning designs.

Teams of students – about 45 undergraduate and graduate students are participating, representing the UH colleges of architecture, engineering, technology, business, law and mathematics and natural sciences – were asked to design an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom house that could be built for $80,000 or less, with monthly utility bills under $25.

The task required technical knowledge, creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to address one of society’s most pressing problems.

“When people think about nice architecture, they think about museums, stadiums, not inexpensive housing,” said Giovanni Peña, a graduate architecture student. “But design elements can be used there, too.”

In addition to the floor plans, students have to consider rooftop solar panels, rainwater catchment systems and window placement, as well as plumbing fixtures, flooring materials and how families actually would use the space.

Badar Khan, CEO of Direct Energy, said the competition is a natural outgrowth of Direct Energy’s belief in a more energy-efficient future.

“We helped to design it to make sure the students are tackling challenges that apply to the real world,” Khan said. “Direct Energy goes beyond believing in a more energy efficient future. We’re investing in the people who are going to help build it.’

Direct Energy service technicians offered advice along the way, joined by UH faculty, architects in private practice and artist Rick Lowe, founder of Project Row Houses and recipient of a 2015 MacArthur Foundation grant. Project Row Houses has built several homes in the Third Ward.     

The $25 monthly energy bill both set the project apart and made it more difficult. Solar panels can reduce energy costs, for example, but increase the upfront expense by $15,000 or more. Competition rules also allowed wind, geothermal and other passive energy sources, but most teams have relied on solar.

Radha Radhakrishnan, joint chief energy officer at UH, said the competition aimed to prepare students to address the nation’s future energy needs.

“It is about challenging them to think about how important energy efficiency is,” Radhakrishnan said. “Energy forecasts predict that over the next 30 years, there will be a huge gap between global energy demand and supply.”