Dozens of students are leaving their desks and donning hard hats at Santa Clara and Stanford universities as teams from both schools build energy-efficient homes, vying to win the sixth Solar Decathlon sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

The contest started in 2002 to show consumers that energy efficient houses could be practical and pretty.

"I wanted to challenge students to design a home that worked well but was beautiful, too," said decathlon program director Richard King, an Energy Department ¿physicist. "I also wanted a real life demo, not a design on a big sheet of paper."

The biennial competition selects 20 university teams from around the world and gives them two years to design, create a project budget, acquire building materials and raise enough money to finish the house. Every house must generate all the energy it needs.

"These competition homes are like Ferrari race cars," King said.

The student-built homes are judged on 10 criteria, and the house that earns the most points wins. Five categories are objective, such as energy output and affordability. The other five are aesthetic, such as interior design. There's an emphasis on keeping costs down, too, with points deducted when building costs climb above $250,000.

Once completed, the competition homes created on campus must be disassembled, trucked to the decathlon site in Orange County, and then built again during the eight-day event. So, unlike most residences, each design includes plans that make it easy to take the house apart and reconstruct it.

With a design dubbed Radiant House, Santa Clara is headed into the competition as "the winningest team," said project manager Jake Gallau, a senior with a major in mechanical engineering. Previously, the Santa Clara team has placed third for its 2009 Refract House and 2007 Ripple House.

The team, composed entirely of undergraduates, has almost 40 students on the core team roster. They've been meeting six days a week to create a design built on economy, elegance and efficiency and hope to win for their innovative use of a solid, structural bamboo that doesn't splinter when it's screwed together.

The students also hope that project sponsor Testarossa Vineyards helps them nail first place in the hospitality contest, in which each home hosts an entertainment night judged on ambience, food quality and energy used for cooking.

Stanford is fielding a team new to the competition, but the students, a mix from all academic levels, are confident they have the talent to win with their Start.Home entry.

Designed to address the problem of affordable housing, the central feature is a core module that contains the hard drive of the house--the power, pipes and appliances. "We're trying to get all the complicated stuff in the house in one place," said project manager Derek Ouyang. "If you build that core in a factory, like the engine of a car, it will save energy, cost, time and labor."

The team envisions a home-building industry that could deliver the central module in a ready-to-go box. The core also becomes a design tool, Ouyang explained. The rest of the house can be customized and built around it. The Stanford students see the idea as a way to push the housing industry forward.

Although the competition focuses on energy efficiency, the Stanford students also introduced features that make the residents smarter about their energy use. With customizable apps, people can get readouts on electricity and water usage on a daily basis. "They can game-ify the living environment to produce sustainability," said Ouyang. "Like iPods, it will improve from generation to generation."

Both university teams have built features into their homes that go beyond the decathlon contest requirements. The Stanford Start.Home is built with reclaimed wood from deconstruction projects. And the Radiant House team worked solar panels into the roof construction.

Building funds are as important as building the house. Although the Department of Energy gave each team $100,000 seed money, students must raise the rest. The Santa Clara team projected total costs at $900,000 and are two-thirds of the way there, according to Gallau. At Stanford, the Start.Home has a $1 million budget, and students need another $100,000.

"The rate of growth of the solar industry has been exponential since 2000," said Tom Werner, the CEO of SunPower, a San Jose firm that has participated in both the U.S. and European Solar Decathlon competitions since 2005.

Photovoltaic installations in the U.S. grew 76 percent through 2011, with an estimated market value of $11.5 billion, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association. California led the country in solar electric capacity installed in 2012, according to the U.S. Solar Marker Insight Year-In-Review report.

Once the showcase is over, these houses often continue educating people about energy efficiency. The Stanford team's house will head for the hills to become a new home and education center for a park ranger. The fate of the Radiant House is still undecided, but the previous winning entries keep homes on campus.

The solar showdown takes place Oct. 3-13 at Orange County Great Park in Irvine.

Contact Elizabeth Devitt at 408-920-5064.

Groundbreaking
A groundbreaking ceremony for Santa Clara University's 2013 Solar Decathlon Team's Radiant House will be held Thursday from noon to 2 p.m. at the construction site at 500 El Camino Real by the Sobrato parking lot in Santa Clara. Enter at Palm Drive and campus safety officials will direct you to the site.
If you plan to attend, wear closed-toe shoes as the ceremony will be held on a construction site.
For more information, visit the website sd13.scu.edu.