Penn State wins Honorable Mention at Solar Decathlon Design Challenge

Rachel Fawcett
May 14, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A Penn State student team won honorable mention in the Suburban Single-Family Housing Contest of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Design Challenge Competition on April 19.

The annual competition challenges teams to design highly energy-efficient buildings powered by renewable energy. It also offers students a unique experience to develop critical career skills, learn from both national experts and peers and gain valuable insights from world-class thought leaders. 

This year’s competition began with students from 82 teams representing 55 collegiate institutions across 11 countries before the selection of finalists. Penn State partnered with a local affordable housing provider — the Centre County Housing and Land Trust — to design an affordable, solar-powered, net zero energy home that could be scalable for neighborhoods in Central Pennsylvania. 

“The Solar Decathlon truly challenges students to design something that many professionals would be hesitant to take on,” said Jonathan Wong, a student team leader. “It is always astounding to see the enthusiasm, hard work and passion the Penn State team puts into its projects to take on this challenge, and this year’s team was certainly no exception.”

The Penn State team qualified as one of 48 teams selected to compete in the virtual final competition held April 17–19. The team’s design consisted of three scales: the home, a pod of four homes and a neighborhood. The final home design was a 1,500-square foot, one-story home with three bedrooms and two full baths. The homes were centered on a social core to bring families together in each pod. As a result, the Penn State team was able to provide Centre County Housing and Land Trust with a community-oriented, affordable design that meets the Zero Energy Ready Home standard and can be reproduced throughout the region.

Exterior rendering

Exterior rendering  

IMAGE: 2019-2020 Penn State Solar Decathlon Team

The project team consisted of students representing multiple colleges and departments at Penn State, as producing a successful design required an interdisciplinary group. The team was led by veteran competition team members: Wong, Puja Bhagat and Celina Deng, all third-year architecture students; Khaled Khalil, a fourth-year architectural engineering student; Paul Pannasow, a fourth-year architecture student; Alex Vinitski, a fifth-year civil engineering student; and Holly Zimmerman, a second-year architecture student.

The interdisciplinary nature of the team provides untold benefits to the students, according to Bhagat. 

“Working with team members of different disciplines through this competition gave me an entirely new perspective on integrative design that isn’t as widely taught in standard studio or design classes in college,” she said. “Especially this year, with the COVID-19 crisis, the team found ways to be extremely flexible and resilient to unknown situations, which is an incredibly valuable skill to learn.”

Additional team members included the following students in architecture: Emmanuella Bakare, Kristina Barr, Farhadi Fahimeh, Adam Figueroa, Xi Jin, Mark Pantalone, Teresa Pecher, Kevin Plamenco, Kristin Roy, Luke Scanlon, Elizabeth Stefanelli, Seth Truckenmiller and Boyuan Wu. Also, team members included Tyler Breda and Samuel Howard from civil engineering, and Jarrett Ballister and Shane Facciponti from architectural engineering.

The competition features a one-credit course in the spring semester, CE 411: Residential Construction Design Project, which is taught by Sarah Klinetob Lowe, housing systems specialist of the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center (PHRC).

Interior rendering

Interior rendering  

IMAGE: 2019-2020 Penn State Solar Decathlon Team

Ali Memari, Bernard and Henrietta Hankin Chair of Residential Construction and director of the PHRC, served as the head competition adviser. Additional faculty advisers included Lisa Domenica Iulo, associate professor of architecture and director of the Hamer Center for Community Design in the Stuckeman School; Andy Lau, associate professor of engineering design; Brian Wolfgang, associate director of the PHRC; and Chris Hine, housing and land development specialist of the PHRC.

“We had a rock star team this year,” said Klinetob Lowe. “The team’s submission was stellar, and their management skills — especially through this unprecedented disruption — were nothing short of impressive. It was truly an honor working with such a professional, focused and well-communicating team of leaders in sustainable design.”

To participate in the 2021 Solar Decathlon Team as a student, faculty mentor or industry adviser, contact Sarah Klinetob Lowe at


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Last Updated May 18, 2020