Team of students from UW-Milwaukee, UW-Madison, advances to solar decathlon finals

MILWAUKEE -- An energy competition team that includes students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and UW-Madison has been selected as a finalist in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Race to Zero Solar Decathlon Competition.

A news release says the competition was originally set for April 17-19 in Golden, Colorado, but now will be conducted digitally because of coronavirus travel and gathering restrictions, according to Mark Keane, professor of architecture at UWM. “Climate change will not wait around for coronavirus.”

The students will video record themselves on stage presenting a PowerPoint that will have a virtual reality film embedded. The goal is for the speakers to present diagrams and the large scale model on stage, then move into a virtual reality walkthrough of the interior spaces.

The Studio Zer0 team includes architecture students from UWM and engineering students from UW-Madison. For the first time, the team is partnering with three clients who will actually build the models on three different sites across Wisconsin. Students from Madison Area Technical College will join the team to help build the house.

The goal of the competition is to create sustainable homes that fight climate change by reducing energy consumption, according to Keane, who is working with 13 UWM students from the School of Architecture and Urban Planning. Mike Cheadle, engineering lecturer at UW-Madison, will be working with eight students from Madison. This is the fifth year the two universities have teamed up for the competition.

The students focused on creating a 1,200-square-foot base model suited to the climate of the upper Midwest. The model can be customized and expanded with a kit of parts. The team chose a modern farmhouse and arts and crafts styles, using best practices for zero net energy.

The houses will be built in Verona, Jackson County and Osceola. The Osceola house will be part of the Community Homestead, and will provide independent living in a farm setting for four special needs young adults.

Architecture students, who are working together in a studio class, look at how to site the house to take advantage of natural light and sun, and to create a well-insulated “envelope” using cost-effective structural insulated panels. At the same time, the design has to allow for good ventilation for comfort and remain durable for decades in Wisconsin’s harsh environment. Engineering students are working to develop the most energy-efficient heating and lighting systems using solar panels with backup heat sources and energy-efficient appliances.

The collaboration is a good learning experience for both the architecture and engineering students on the team, Keane said, giving both groups a chance to learn more about the other profession’s approach to saving energy.

The Zer0 Energy courses will be offered to students again in 2020-2021, according to Keane. The project is looking for partners interested in collaborating and building zero net energy homes next year.