University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering


UH Students Design Energy Efficient, Affordable Homes


Jeannie Kever

With plans to capture the power of Houston’s sun and reuse its abundant rainfall, a group of University of Houston students has completed the first phase of an ambitious project to rethink affordable housing and energy efficiency.

Three interdisciplinary teams have been named winners of the Energy Efficiency Innovation Challenge, sponsored by Direct Energy and UH Energy. Ultimately, organizers plan to build the winning designs in Houston’s Third Ward, near the UH campus.

Teams of students – about 30 undergraduate and graduate students participated, representing the UH colleges of architecture, engineering, technology, business, law and mathematics and natural sciences – were asked to design an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom house that could be built for $80,000 or less, with monthly utility bills under $25.

“When this was first announced, people thought it was not possible,” said Radha Radhakrishnan, joint chief energy officer at UH. “All the teams came in with less than $15 (in energy bills).”

The competition includes a $6,000 prize to the winning team. Second and third place teams will receive $4,500 and $3,000 respectively.

The winning teams are:

  • First place: Envirow House – Giovanni Peña, Jessica Hedge, Inbisat Zahara and Travis Franks.
  • Second place: EcoHouse 3W – Kathleen Sobczak, Klvanc Biber, Khoula Mehmood, Mahek Hooda and Himanshu Patel.
  • Third place: Team Chimera – Oluseyi Fatayi Williams, Mark Williams, Eric Choe, Julio Constantino and Jesus Escobar.

The task required technical knowledge, creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to address one of society’s most pressing problems. All of the teams relied on solar panels to produce electricity and rainwater catchment systems to supplement the public water system.

“When people think about nice architecture, they think about museums, stadiums, not inexpensive housing,” said Peña, a graduate architecture student. “But design elements can be used there, too.”

Zahara, who is majoring in finance and supply chain management, said the group studied the history of the Third Ward to guide their design. “We wanted to make sure people would keep their culture,” she said.

Badar Kahn, CEO of Direct Energy, said the competition is a natural outgrowth of Direct Energy’s belief in a more energy-efficient future.

“We want you to buy less of what we sell,” he told the crowd just before the winners were announced. “We waste a tremendous amount of energy in our homes.”

Direct Energy helped to design the competition to make sure students were “tackling challenges that apply to the real world,” he said. “Direct Energy goes beyond believing in a more energy efficient future. We’re investing in the people who are going to help build it.’

Radhakrishnan said the competition aimed to prepare students to address the nation’s future energy needs.

“It is about challenging them to think about how important energy efficiency is,” Radhakrishnan said. “Energy forecasts predict that over the next 30 years, there will be a huge gap between global energy demand and supply.”


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