The UWM and UW-Madison team reach the finals of the national Solar Decathlon

The Wisconsin team’s design featured in this rendering includes features such as an orientation that allows photovoltaic panels to capture the sun’s energy year-round, energy-efficient windows, added insulation, and window overhangs that provide shade in the warmer months.

Energy costs are a big problem for consumers these days. And it’s not just the so-called “pain at the pump”. Household energy costs are also increasing.

That’s one of the reasons the US Department of Energy sponsors an annual Race to Zero Solar Decathlon for colleges and universities.

For the seventh consecutive year, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison collaborate to design a home for the competition and are among the 10 finalists in the New Construction category. The event will take place April 22-24 in Golden, Colorado.

While the competition generates energy efficiency ideas, the designs are also created for specific clients. This year’s entry is for a couple looking to build a home in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, according to Zack McGillis, an architecture student and project manager on the team.

“Our clients want to move to a new area and start a family of their own,” he said. “It’s good to make this home renewable and give a family what they dreamed of,” McGillis said.

Designed for mass production

While this couple is interested in the lifestyle amenities of Door County, the students designed the home so it could be mass-produced. Designing the two-storey basic house as two rectangles gives flexibility to the layout.

And like last year’s entry, it could become part of the City of Milwaukee’s portfolio of affordable, energy-efficient designs. “This design could become part of the solution to Milwaukee’s housing crisis,” McGillis said.

Student team members from UWM’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning provide the design features that save energy, while UW-Madison engineering students develop the mechanical systems that support this goal. According to McGillis, the home was designed with Wisconsin’s climate in mind.

Design features of this year’s entry include an orientation that provides the most sunlight along the longitudinal axis, allowing slopes with photovoltaic panels to capture the sun’s energy year-round. Energy efficient windows and additional insulation create an airtight envelope around the structure. Window overhangs provide shade and allow for passive cooling in the warmer months.

Minimizing the impact of construction

According to Timothy Villwock, senior in architecture and lead designer on the UWM team, the design also minimizes the environmental impact of the actual build. The house can be built in two 14ft modules in a factory. Eco-friendly features include the use of recycled plastics, rainwater collection, and a gray water system that can filter water from bathtubs and washing machines for reuse.

By building the modules in a factory, the design also reduces material waste and emissions from transport and construction vehicles, Villwock added. It is planned that local suppliers will be used for lumber and concrete, and materials recycled from other projects can be incorporated into the home.

With its modular design, the number of bedrooms, bathrooms, and square footage can vary, but the design the students are presenting for the competition has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and 1,400 square feet.

After two years of virtual competitions, the team is presenting itself this year in person. This year’s competition includes entries from across the United States and around the world.

The team members

Nine people from the UWM team are heading to Colorado, including Tanner Brandt, Brandon Zoll, Melissa Fischer, Armando Chavez, Heather Gruber and Kevin Rezek. Sahara KC, Villwock and Gabrielle Norton will make the presentation on stage. “We’re all very excited to get the full Colorado experience and showcase ourselves in person,” said Villwock.

Team leaders for UW-Madison are Sammie Lundin and Evan Fernandez. Professor Mark Keane of Architecture is the UWM faculty mentor and Mike Cheadle, Associate Professor of Engineering at UW-Madison, is the mentor for the UW-Madison portion of the team.

Contact Keane at for more information.

Leave a Comment