Penn State wins third place at Solar Decathlon Design Challenge

June 20, 2022

By Rachel Fawcett

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A team of engineering and architecture students from Penn State brought home third place in the Retrofit Housing Division of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2022 Design Challenge Competition on April 23 at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado. The Penn State team was one of 55 finalists representing 38 collegiate institutions. 

Alan Chong and Em Dent, fifth-year architectural engineering students; Alyssa Penrod and Luke Scanlon, third-year architecture students; and Jacob Spinelli, third-year mechanical engineering student, represented the 21-member group at the competition.  

Another team with Penn State Harrisburg students and Stuckeman School architecture students qualified as a finalist for the 2023 Build Challenge, which will take place next spring.  

The Solar Decathlon is a collegiate competition that challenges student teams to design and build highly efficient and innovative buildings powered by renewable energy. In its current iteration, the competition consists of a design challenge with six divisions, as well as a build challenge. 

A computer rendering of a light-colored building with horizontal slits. The foreground is a wide path leading to the building, surrounded by greenery and blue sky

Exterior rendering of the Penn State team's proposed design. Credit: 2022 Penn State Solar Decathlon Design Challenge Team. All Rights Reserved.

The student team conducted a retrofit proposal for the MorningStar House, which was originally designed and constructed for the 2007 Solar Decathlon Build Challenge. The Penn State Sustainability Institute, which currently operates the house, requested the retrofit for the house to meet an updated standard of technical and renewable energy needs, as well as a design refresh for the house to serve as a permanent structure. Located at the Sustainability Experience Center on the University Park campus, the MorningStar House is used as an immersive learning and research destination for Penn State and the surrounding community. 

The retrofit proposal focused on three key areas: modernizing the outdated energy and mechanical systems; refining the building envelope; and updating interior spaces and site design. Since the MorningStar House’s construction in 2007, building performance expectations have changed as new materials and systems become available and codes are updated, which necessitates the replacement of outdated systems. The building envelope was refined to ensure air tightness and thermal insulation to maximize energy performance, occupant comfort and environmental quality. Despite its name, the structure operates as a learning space rather than a home, and as such, its interior and site designs were updated to match its current use for visitors to explore sustainable design and observe building science principles in action.

A computer rendering of a light colored building with a wide path leading to it. A pergola is to the right, and railings are visible on the roof

Exterior rendering of the back patio for Penn State team's proposed design. Credit: 2022 Penn State Solar Decathlon Design Challenge Team. All Rights Reserved.

The competition encourages inter- and multidisciplinary collaboration to create a holistic design and features a one-credit course in the spring semester, CE 411: Residential Construction Design Project, to help align student skills. This year’s course was taught by Sarah Klinetob Lowe, formerly the high-performance housing specialist of the Pennsylvania Housing Research Center (PHRC) and now operations director of the Global Building Network in the College of Engineering. 

“It was such a pleasure working with this outstanding interdisciplinary team of future high-performance building professionals,” Klinetob Lowe said. “Their enthusiasm and professionalism in rising to the challenge of a retrofit design was commendable, and the feedback from the competition judges and Sustainability Institute representatives at every checkpoint was overwhelmingly positive. We couldn’t be prouder of this team and how well they represented Penn State at this international showcase event.”    

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; Rahman Azari, associate professor of architecture; and Brian Wolfgang, associate director of the PHRC. 

Students, faculty or industry interested in participating in the 2023 Solar Decathlon Design Challenge as a member or adviser of the Penn State team should contact Wolfgang at

The Stuckeman School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture is the largest academic unit in the College of Arts and Architecture at Penn State. It houses the departments of Architecture, Graphic Design and Landscape Architecture, as well as two research centers: the Hamer Center for Community Design and the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing.  

The PHRC collaboratively engages with the residential construction industry to catalyze advancements in homebuilding through education, training, innovation, research, and dissemination. The PHRC envisions a residential construction industry equipped with the knowledge, skills, and technology to build better homes. Administered within the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Penn State, view their website at to learn more.


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Rachel Fawcett | 814-863-2990 |

Pamela Krewson Wertz | 814-865-9512 |

“We couldn't be prouder of this team and how well they represented Penn State at this international showcase event.” — Sarah Klinetob Lowe, operations director of the Global Building Network


To learn more about participating in the 2023 challenge, contact Brian Wolfgang at