Case Study: Living Light Home / Solar Decathlon

U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon (self-initiated)
Project Title
Living Light
October 2009–September 2011

Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2011 “Making the Case” competition, in which an esteemed jury identified submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. It serves as an example of how to explain design thinking to clients, students, peers and the public in general, based on specific metrics.

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 is an international competition held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for interdisciplinary student/faculty teams to design and build solar-powered, energy-efficient homes. This year, Team Living Light of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is one of just 20 competitors selected to participate in this prestigious event. In less than two years the teams will compete against each other to design and build a home that will be judged for its excellence in ten categories: architecture, market appeal, communications, engineering, affordability, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment and energy balance. Each category is worth about 100 points. The winning team produces a house that: is affordable, attractive, and easy to live in; maintains comfortable and healthy indoor environmental conditions; supplies energy to household appliances for cooking, cleaning, and entertainment; provides adequate hot water; and produces as much or more energy than it consumes.


Around $1,000,000 to fulfill criteria for competition. Design is all pro bono.


This written component of our case study focuses on some of the architectural, engineering and communication aspects of the competition. Our website,, explains the full systems of the house in more detail. The six goals of our communications team are to:

  1. Provide input during the architectural design phase
  2. Create a name and appropriate identity for the Living Light home.
  3. Raise the necessary funds ($850,000!!) to build and transport the house to Washington, D.C.
  4. Develop a website and other communication materials to explain all aspects of the project to the general public
  5. Generate excitement and increase awareness for the project through social media sites as well as events on and off campus
  6. Communicate the benefits of using Solar Energy to the surrounding community


UT’s Team Living Light involves more than 200 students and 8 faculty from 7 departments across campus including the College of Architecture and Design, the College of Engineering, the College of Business Administration, and the College of Arts and Sciences. Working together, these students and faculty have developed a design for an easily transportable 800-square-foot house for the competition. All students are considered on equal footing with the rest of the students and have the opportunity to provide input into all aspects of the house design—from the architectural plans and engineering to business administration and communications. The teams have overlapped numerous times during the ongoing phases of the project. Over the course of more than a year and a half there have been 28 graphic design students from three separate classes involved in Living Light.


House design: January 14, 2011

This part of the project has been completed and a 1/25 scale model was displayed in Orlando, Florida at the United Home Builders Show for five days in January. Construction begins in an off-campus warehouse in February 2011.

Construction completed: July 1, 2011

Once the home is fully assembled, the Living Light team will move its focus to the details of the functionality of the home. The home control system will be installed at this time so we will begin testing our systems. Finishing the home this early provides us with two months to not only perfect the systems in the home but also practice the competitions and tours before being on the National Mall.

Begin transportation to Washington, D.C.: July 10, 2011

The steel also doubles as the chassis of a lowboy double drop highway trailer, allowing the home to be easily transported in one volume to Washington, D.C. for the competition and to future events. In early September, the gooseneck and bogey of the highway trailer will be connected to the home, temporary bracing secured, and facades protected for the drive to Washington, D.C., where the home will meet about 20 students ready to begin assembly on the National Mall.

Solar Decathlon 2011 Competition: September 13–October 5, 2011

September 13 marks the beginning of seven allotted days for assembly. The Solar Decathlon homes will be set up between 7th and 14th Streets on the National Mall. During this time, team Living Light will assemble the deck module, plantings and attend to various details within the home. On September 22, all assembly will be halted and the 10 days of judging will begin.

Tennessee Valley tour: 2012

At the close of the Solar Decathlon Competition, the Living Light house will be used as a tool for education, outreach, and continued research. One of the primary aspirations of the team from the start was to take the Living Light house on tour through Tennessee to demonstrate sustainability, energy-efficiency, and emerging technologies to the public. The house will also be used as a laboratory by the team and its collaborators, collecting data, testing new applications of technologies, and demonstrating their capabilities.


Our communication objectives are to:

  • Identify potential donors and sponsors through alumni and industry lists
  • Fundraise for the Solar Decathlon Project
  • Educate the general public about sustainable architecture
  • Champion the education of students at UT
  • Demonstrate what UT brings to the general public, economy and industry
  • Connect Living Light with other solar initiatives in TN
  • Showcase new technology and research with industry new systems

Primary audience:

  • Donors & Sponsors
  • Industry + Business Partnerships / Building and Technology
  • UT Community

Secondary audience:

  • Citizens of TN
  • Potential homeowners
  • Future UT students; K-12 teachers and students

Tertiary audience:

  • TN politicians
  • General alumni/ professionals in architecture, engineering and design firms
Key Themes
  • Solar energy/Harvesting the sun’s energy
  • Maximizing transparency and view
  • Living compactly
  • User control of light, view and ventilation
  • Leaving a small footprint
  • Flexible spaces
  • Interdisciplinary project, studio based learning collaboration
  • Living/learning community
  • Origin in Tennessee
  • Determine milestones
  • Define key messages and identify student presenters
  • Present to local and regional organizations
  • Promote special events: ribbon-cutting at prototype, arrival of structural frame
  • USGBC- presence on campus 6/18/2010
  • Media sponsorships with local news stations
  • Tech 20/20
  • Contact chancellor’s associates
  • Contact Knox County Alumni Chapter
  • Set up social media outlets and determine strategies for engagement
  • Gather list of environmental bloggers
  • Promote the University of Tennessee, Knoxville
  • Capitalize on Special events: Football Games, Destination Imagination, etc.
  • Produce “In Progress” videos
  • Leverage the Solar Decathlon reputation
  • Contact Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America to establish a “Solar Energy” badge
Our Unique Selling Proposition
  • Make money off your house.
  • Make Orange green.
  • Green design is good business
Differentiation from Other Homes
  • 360° apart from the others or 180° difference
  • Doublewide goes on the road
  • Living Light as Educational Tool

Design components

QR Codes

QR is the abbreviation for Quick Response, as the creator intended the code to allow its contents to be decoded at high speed. A QR Code is a specific matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code), readable by dedicated QR barcode readers and camera phones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. The information encoded can be text, URL or other data. We generated a QR Code for our Living Light home that contains the url of the website. As long as you have a smart phone with a QR code app (free and downloadable), you can shoot a picture of the code and it will link automatically to our website.

Tennessee Valley Tour 2012 / Girl Scout & Boy Scout Badges

One of the distinguishing features of the house is that it was designed to be transportable. Therefore, at the close of the Solar Decathlon Competition, the Living Light house will be used as a tool for education, and outreach as it tours the state. Among other plans, one outreach strategy we are implementing is the design of a “solar” badge program for girl scouts and boy scouts of Tennessee.

Short Documentary Video

Our main goal for the first 8 months of the project was to raise $850,000 to build and transport our house to Washington D.C. In order to accomplish this, we developed a short documentary video (7 minutes) that we could show prospective donors to help explain the long hard journey to get into the Solar Decathlon competition. We hoped that by hearing about the competition from the many student and faculty participants, we would inspire our audiences to support their Tennessee Team. Like everything, the video was student produced. A short version is available on our home page:

Team T-shirts

These t-shirts were printed using photochromic ink, which is pigment that is activated by UV light. The text has an light outline that fills in with dark blue when worn outside in the sunlight.

Website Design

We designed our website using WordPress so that a number of team members could add or change content regardless if they knew HTML or not. This creates a dynamic site and more closely reflects the nature of this interdisciplinary project. It also helps us populate the site with information quicker than if we only had one or two people who had access. We purposely did not use Flash so that site would be fully viewable on an iPad, which we plan to use on the site in D.C. as information signage. The use of social media is an important aspect of the site given that one main goal of the competition is to generate excitement and educate the public about process of designing and building a 100-percent solar efficient home. One unique feature of the site is the shifting of the background color every two hours, moving from lighter to darker as midnight approaches.

Home Systems Interface

The home systems can be monitored and controlled by an interface designed for use on an ipad. The touch screen provides user access to control heating and air, lighting, blinds, media, energy efficiency and weather. Also embedded in the design is a variety of “mood” settings and a default “Living Light” mode.


Vernacular Inspiration

Our house design builds upon traditional building strategies and the history of energy research in the state of Tennessee. Learning from buildings of Southern Appalachia, the dogtrot house and cantilever barn, we were inspired to incorporate daylight, natural ventilation, and adaptability to natural conditions.

Smart Systems

The Living Light house challenges the idea that energy-efficient housing must be a solid, highly insulated volume, maximizing exterior glass walls and daylighting within the home. All systems pursue passive design solutions and incorporate active technologies only when necessary. For example, the airspace within the exterior glass walls of the Living Light house can act like a greenhouse to warm the home in winter, or when ventilated, buffer against the summer heat.

Using The Suns Energy

Similarly, the trellis-like tubular solar array works with the reflective roof to produce electricity from direct and reflected sunlight as well as shading the roof and walls.This rooftop array employs a cylindrical module, so that sunlight is captured across a 360° photovoltaic (PV) surface while maintaining a low profile. This allows the array to function at its full potential in any location. The cylindrical shape offers a few other benefits as well. The space between cylinders enables light to pass through the panel to a reflective white rooftop, permitting diffuse and reflected light to be captured on the under side of the PV. The wind load on the roof is reduced due to the spaces as well. The entire system is designed to be equally at home on the roof of the Living Light home or as a retrofit to existing structures.

Structural Design

One of the defining ideas for the Living Light house was for it to be a single entity to minimize assembly on site. It is designed to be easily transportable, integrating the trailer system into the fabrication of the home. The steel structural frame is a demountable chassis of a low-boy double-drop highway trailer with temporary foundations supporting the main transportable volume. The temporary foundations are steel screw jacks permanently attached to the structure. The jacks will be spaced and sized to evenly support the weight of the chassis over uneven terrain.

Identity Design

The logo is comprised of a mark and a logotype. The mark is both gear and sun, which refers to the mechanical power of the sun and signifies the idea that people can work together with nature to support the planet. In the logotype, there is evidence of the major concepts of the house: do more with less; be functional and modular.

The ligatures coupled with the use of repetitive linear forms visualize these ideas using letterform parts. In addition, the stroke weights and round terminals add flow and subtly refer to the tubular photovoltaic panels in the roof array.

Concept Design Icons

Our modular home makes use of component systems with the ability to enhance the energy efficiency and sustainability of simple strategies. Complexity is only added when necessary. After unpacking the many ideas encompassed in Living Light, the team agreed on six underlying themes that dictated the design of the home. In addition to other contexts, these information icons will be used on location to explain, and connect, the various systems and identify their located in the house.