Montreal students innovating solar housing

In a recent talk at TEDxOrangeCoast, Solar Decathlon Director Richard King asserted: “Solar is the energy you live by. […] Think about the energy you use around your house. Can solar provide all that?”

Solar Decathlon is an international competition initiated by the U.S. Department of Energy, in which teams of university students compete to build an energy-efficient house powered entirely by the sun. Like the Olympic athletic event, the Solar Decathlon lies on 10 criteria to measure and judge the best design. The first competition was held in the US in 2002; since then, several international editions occur biennially across the globe, in the U.S., Europe, China and very soon Latin America and Caribbean. The goals of the competition, beyond showcasing the cutting-edge of solar technology and efficient house designs, is to draw interest to the issue of energy consumption in housing and buildings, and create opportunities for students and other people alike to tackle a multidisciplinary challenge.

The motivation behind this competition is simple. The urban model is growing tremendously and with it comes incredible resource consumption: residential and commercial buildings contribute to 40% of the CO2 emissions and 70% of the electricity usage. And while the global impact of those systems is increasing, the pressure to reduce that ecological footprint by improving efficiency and developing alternative energy sources is not increasing nearly as much. The competition is thus a way to drive research in clean technologies and sustainable building strategies. And according to Richard King: “Who’s responsible for buildings if they’re wasting energy? Well the answer is: architects and engineers.”

Although photovoltaic panels mainly provide the energy generation in the Solar Decathlon designs, most of the energy balance for the houses is achieved by other means. Sun power is also used passively, that is as a direct source of heating and lighting by optimizing penetration of the sunrays through properly positioned windows and shades. Passive technology goes a long way in providing cost-effective energy gains; insulation techniques and intelligent systems for monitoring are also important considerations in the design. Finally, green rooftops can make the house more self-sustainable and autonomous for example. All that contributes in reaching what is called “net-zero energy building”.

The concept of green architecture is now a growing trend. The number of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) or Energy Star certified buildings is steadily increasing, with notable examples including the Vancouver Convention Centre (LEED Platinum). McGill’s Life Sciences Complex is actually LEED Gold Certified. Another standard in ultra-low energy buildings is the German PassivHaus, which is much more widespread in Europe than North America, and sets very rigorous guidelines for building energy consumption and ecological footprint.

Going back to Solar Decathlon, Montreal-based team netMTL is working on placing a bid for the upcoming European competition that will be held in 2016. netMTL is composed of over 35 members, students from various departments and faculties of both McGill and Concordia Universities (engineering, architecture, management, law, etc). The team partners with organizations and institutions such as the TISED, EUS, NSERC, Montréal Zero, and is supported by Faculty Advisors at McGill and Concordia, such as Associate Dean Prof. Mohammed Meguid.

netMTL’s current project is designing a student housing complex, with a modular aspect to allow quick assembly of the different components. The team is currently drafting a detailed proposal that will be presented at the end of this year in order to qualify for the competition. Should all go well, the team is hoping to build their design in Montreal by Fall of next year, and then showcase it at the competition in Versailles, France in June 2016.

Solar Decathlon is a great way to get involved in a design team and work in a multidisciplinary team on a complex project. It also provides many opportunities for learning, through events, site visits and conferences. Team Montreal is looking for committed people willing to help out; if you are interested you can visit for more information or email

Marc Chelala


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