Refract House, Solar Decathlon / Team California, SCU + CCA


For three weeks in October 2009, 20 teams of college and university students will compete in the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.  The competition provides the teams with an opportunity to “design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house.”  Organized in three stages, (building, moving to the solar village in the National Mall in Washington D.C., and the actual competition) the Solar Decathlon aims to raise awareness among the general public about renewable energy and energy efficiency, help solar energy technologies enter the marketplace faster, foster collaboration among students from different academic disciplines, and educate the student participants.  “The Solar Decathlon brings attention to one of the biggest challenges we face-an ever-increasing need for energy. As an internationally recognized event, it offers powerful solutions-using energy more efficiently and using energy from renewable sources.”

Santa Clara University, known for their excellence in engineering/business got the third place at the 2007 competition, and for this year’s competition they teamed with CCA, dedicated to architecture, art and design, to create a 100 student team to participate in the Solar Decathlon.  The team is the only undergraduate-led team participating in the competition (most are filled with Ph. D programs), combing “youth and process, [they] set the standard in green living”.  The young team of future architects, engineers, construction managers, graphic designers and interior designers have created a proposal, entitled Refract House, that is dedicated to promoting the idea of “Living Light: harnessing sunlight to power our energy needs, lightening our carbon footprint upon the earth, and enlightening today’s consumers and the next generation of concerned, responsible citizens about the possibilities of sustainable living.”  “We want the project to have a lasting impact as both a case study for green design and as an exhibit of technology. We already know it’s going to have an impact on all of us,” explained Allison Kopf, an SCU Engineering Physics student.

More about the winning after the break.


The Refract House, an 800 square foot zero energy home, breaks from “the classic hyper-efficient box shape” to prove that zero energy can occur with bold aesthetics. ”We propose a new precedent for energy efficient homes that prioritizes visual, spatial and functional connection with the surrounding environment.  The bent form of the structure mimics the path of the sun of the sun from dawn to dusk.  This speaks to the name Refract House, because we change the way light is used,” explained the team.


The team stressed their cutting edge solar thermal and photovoltaic system.   The solar thermal array is comprised of plate type collectors that reduce heat loss.  “By combining cutting edge technology in the home with our most abundant resource-the sun-we can start using our natural resources more intelligently, and we can show others how it is done,” explained Tim Sennott, an SCU Mechanical Engineering student.


The lighting of the home maximizes the admittance of high quality sunlight “to create a stronger spatial connection to outdoors.”   An outdoor courtyard compliments the Californian ecosystem and climate, in addition to providing a smaller garden with edible plants.  The home also features a grey-water treatment system, bamboo joists, and a storage pool, plus a monitor that displays energy and water consumption levels inside the home.  All systems and sustainable design features were created by the students.


Never mind their finishing place, we are impressed with the dedication and determination of this young team. We look forward to seeing all the winning proposals in the National Mall in a few months and will keep you updated on this great competition.







More info at: SCU + CCA Solar Decathlon

Competition: U.S. Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon
Competition Team: Santa Clara University and
Date of Solar Decathlon Competition: October 9-18, 2009
Place: National Mall in Washington, DC
Size: 800 sq.ft. One-Bedroom Home

Cite: Cilento, Karen. "Refract House, Solar Decathlon / Team California, SCU + CCA" 09 Jul 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 May 2015. <>
  • Problematik

    While reviewing this projet, a question come to my mind :Should architects make 3d renders ? In the renders, we rarely feel the pencil stroke, the architect stroke. When I’m looking at those renders, and consider all the energy behind the choice of the right textures, lights, and fake things, I hadn’t the feeling that I’m looking to an architect drawing. With today’s 3d perspectives, everybody can give a comment on a architectural project, simply by looking at those 3d pictures, without even look at the floor plans and sections… What do you think about it?

    • Vision

      People live in 3d space, not in 2d floor plans or sections!!! The more realistic the 3d renders, the better, even for the architects themselves! Plans/elevations/sections are good for construction process but in reality you will never see the building as it is drawn in 2d orthogonal projections. And what is wrong with everybody commenting on a architectural project??

      • Juliano Teixeira

        Well, in my opinion 3d perspectives serve very well for selling purposes. Customers usually preffer 3d drawings because they just do not understand sections and plans. However, design drawings have always been the international language for architects. Plans and most specially sections show problems that a 3d render will never do. Obviously, they can complement a design when they come as an attachment, but unfortunatelly it is not what happen. Since they just have a bigger visual appeal, most of architects nowadays seem to preffer evaluate a given design prioritazing these images, what unfortunatelly gives room for an increasingly higher lack of quality of the design itself, once some important and relevant problems have not come to be found.

    • Omar A. Maach

      The pencil strokes days are long gone. the ability to do 3d rendering and models is a great tool not simply in order to present realistic perspective, but it also teaches the architect about the potential of materiality trough trial and error process until the best scheme is reached.
      the pencil and sketching is great for form development and process but 3d modeling gives the ability to investigate truly the over whole idea and find out about spacial and texture inconsistencies before it’s too late.

  • Dustin

    where is the solar graph? If the whole concept is the use of solar power shouldnt this be the starting point? Are these solar panels situated according to the sun to receive the most amount of solar energy possible? Very important step of the design process missing if that is not the situation.
    I also hate reflecting pools that are just their to fill up space.

    • RgZ

      One of the criterion for the competition is the integration of solar panels into the design. Thus, the panels are positioned more so for aesthetic integration than maximum performance.

      The reflecting pool is actually the collection point of our rainwater harvesting.

      • Calvin

        The photovoltaics are positioned correctly, those renderings are not how the construction documents are drawn, unless they have changed since the last time I’ve saw them. The photovoltaics will be positioned inline with the building structure for transportation and will be raised to their final slope orientation. Keep in mind the building’s photovoltaics is designed for use in California, because it will reside in California after the competition.

  • mark

    What is the point of using solar panels mainly for aesthetic purposes…the amount of energy that is used to create the panels is staggering! surely they should be orientated in such a way to gain maximum exposure…architecture needs to tackle ethical issuses now. we cant design with just aesthetics in mind. but quite a well presented scheme

    • sd

      I agree about the solar panel comment. I dont think this scheme used it for aesthetics because they’re not visible anyway due to the low degree of pitch. I think if they minimize the number of panels and narrow it down to the most useful area of the roof they would save a lot of cost.

  • Kelly

    I agree about the use of passive design. Although this looks like a sleek sexy design, what is great about the solar decatholon is that through design the use of solar and passive techniques are brought to the forefront. I would really like to see the solar panels integrated better in the design.

  • PanamArq

    i really like the definition of a “courtyard” patio space. so many of these solar decathalon homes are linear boxes. This actually feels like it could be a home

  • Steve

    It’s weird. The 2009 competition hasn’t happened yet. How did this team already place 3rd. Someone should fact check.

    On the design, I think it’s neat. If anyone’s actually looked into the Solar Decathlon, there are a lot of rules the students have to fit into I believe. I think this team did a pretty good job utilizing what they have and making a bold and beautiful design.

    As for the panels, yes it looks to be a hugely oversized system, however the point of the competition is to harvest as much energy as possible.

    Not to mention, this was designed and built by students!

    I say well done guys. Welcome to the real world and great job doing things people in the industry can’t even do yet.

    • David Basulto [tricky]

      Dear Steve,

      SCU placed 3rd on the 2007 competition.

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  • R2D2

    The solar panels are not situated for purely aesthetic reasons. They are oriented to south and sloped to maximize gain. Considering that success they are well integrated in the design, form meets function.

    • yawn

      “not situated for purely aesthetic reasons” should be removed from your comment as they are obviously not positioned for any aesthetic reasons at all. They in fact appear to be plonked on top of a bland contorted rectangle. The value of the contortion of this rectangle seems to be ‘obvious’ from the tone of the write up, but many of the commentators here seem to miss this inherit value of the design, which would suggest that there potentially is no value at all?

      In the case of this proposal, I would say that form does not follow function at all, but rather the post-rationalized whims of a naive student.

      The departure from the typical linear boxes that litter this competition year after year is a welcome reprieve, but I’m shocked that this submission doesn’t live up to the expectations of rigor and thought that should be expected of an institution such CCA. How on earth did this pass the design reviews?

      • http://bursa-turkey hasan.

        I remember the Darmstad Uni’s solar home on 2007, it was quite different from the others.
        Not only to putting panels on the roof, generating electricity with them, using sustainable material, facing the home to south..etc. makes home sustainable.
        I think everyone who are attending to this competition must examine the projects have done in depth.

      • Zedster

        Great consideration for aesthetics was taken into the roof (and entire house) design–even at the expense of maximizing collection capacity. It is a shame that these renderings don’t seem as obvious as the design truly is. A better rendering shows that both the solar panels and the roof are solid black–fully integrated panels and indiscernible from the roofing material.

        I’m fairly confident the judges will recognize that the form of this house does in fact follow function, as they will have all the design materials this article, yawn, and commenters do not, in addition to seeing the actual, completed house in person.

  • Liz

    Tampa, Florida-based Thermablok donated the aerogel insulation used in the SCU/CCA REFRACT house, and the experience of getting acquainted with these talented students has been fantastic. Their commitment to incorporating sustainable materials like Thermablok into the home’s aesthetic and functional design has been an amazing process to follow, particularly since this is the only team consisting of only undergrads. Expectations should be very high when this competition culminates in DC.

  • Daniel O

    Speaking of 3D renders, can anyone tell me what program(s)were probably used to produce these ace images?

    • omar maach

      i think they used vray or 3dmax. the modeling could of been done anywhere since it’s not a complex form

    • Nico Glen

      They used Maxwell Render. And I guess they did not only becuase of the image quality, but because Maxwell Render is the only realistic renderer that uses real sun information to generate the images, and real sun illumination according to coordenates and other factors. So they didnt make a wrong choice in making this renders to actually analize the building. Its not like everybody here is saying, that the renders are made for commercializing and that sort of things.

      • Jason

        Maxwell is not the only program that uses sun information. the solar systems from 3ds max contain all the data you would need. not to mention that revit also has this built in (this is obviously not revit.) i would assume these are vray or mental ray

    • refract_house_render

      Model was done in Rhino, renders in Maxwell.

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