Team website:

Minnesota has harsh winters and humid summers, so students from the University of Minnesota knew designing a home that could withstand the climate of Washington, D.C., wouldn’t be much of a problem.

“We knew we could handle anything D.C. threw at us,” says Daniel Handeen, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, and the assistant project manager for the school’s Solar Decathlon house.

Called the Icon Solar House for its familiar gabled shape, the home was part of the biennial Solar Decathlon competition, which featured 20 student-designed-and-built dwellings on display on the National Mall through Oct. 18.

Although the competition exposes students to a variety of cutting-edge sustainable technologies, Handeen thinks the most beneficial aspect of the contest was teaching students from different departments how to work together.

One of the main collaborations between engineering and architecture students was designing the roof of the house.

“In Minnesota, an angle of 35 degrees to 45 degrees is usually considered ideal for solar collection during the winter,” explains the team on its Web site. “However, because of competition height restrictions, this roof pitch was too steep for the Icon Solar House.”

So the engineers developed a spreadsheet detailing the different angles of the roof and how many rays each pitch would receive, Handeen says. Then, the architecture and engineering students picked the compromise between the most reasonable angle that had the best possible energy outcome.

“Usually, you stay within your discipline,” Handeen says. “This is an opportunity for engineers and architects to learn how to talk to each other within a real-life situation.”

Another impressive student-designed system is the desiccant dehumidifier, which uses a solution to dry out the air before it is cooled, Handeen says. This saves energy, because the air conditioning unit does not need to perform both tasks.

Along with using PV panels to capture energy, the team focused on ways that the house could save energy. They used closed-cell spray-foam insulation to give the walls a measurement of R-50, and the ceiling a measurement of R-70.

The windows, made by Marvin Windows and Doorsare triple-glazed, filled with argon, and coated with low-E film. East- and west-facing windows use electrochromic glass manufactured by SAGE Electrochromics that can change from dark to clear electronically.

Employing electrochromic glass means homeowners can always see out of their windows, Handeen says, adding that SAGE is a Minnesota-based company.

Along with being proud of their project’s systems, students like that their house is designed to fit with a traditional aesthetic.

“We wanted a house that could integrate into today’s market,” says Ken Thompson, a computer science student who worked on the house’s Web site.

Handeen says the “homey feel” of the Icon Solar House ensures that consumers won’t be intimidated by the technology it contains.

“We integrated new technology with a familiar context,” he says. “We tried to make it something that felt like home.”

Victoria Markovitz is Associate Editor for Custom Home.