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UniVerse: The great solar decathlon

Lucy Hughes Jones marvels at the world’s largest sustainable building.

Lucy Hughes Jones marvels at the world’s largest sustainable building.

A team from the University of Wollongong (UOW) and Illawarra TAFE has won the world’s largest sustainable building competition, dubbed the ‘energy Olympics’, by retrofitting a typical 1960s Aussie fibro cottage into a net zero-energy solar home.

The Illawarra Flame house took out first place at the 2013 Solar Decathlon in China last week, beating 19 other finalists from around the globe.

Planning took two years but after a six-week journey across the Pacific, the house was rebuilt in 12 days on site in Datong, about 300 kilometres from Beijing.

It was the first time an Australian team had made it to the finals of the competition, which began in 2002, and it was the only entry in the competition to demonstrate how to retrofit an existing home and reduce its energy consumption to zero.

“We’ve got around eight million homes currently existing in Australia, and 13% of our carbon emissions comes from the residential housing sector,” Lloyd Niccol, project manager and engineering student at UOW, told Honi.

“Rather than trying to build brand new solar homes, we can fix our existing ones to drive down our carbon emissions.”

The 51 students from the ‘Gong improved heating, insulation and ventilation systems for the house, while increasing airtightness and installing a rainwater harvester, vertical gardens and a photovoltaic thermal air system to allow it to generate more energy than it consumed.

Schooled in the fields of architecture, design, engineering and construction, team UOW raised more than $1 million for the project, aided by industry, government and university sponsorship.

Once disassembled, the house will be shipped back to its new home, the Sustainable Buildings Research Centre at the University of Wollongong campus. But for now, the group celebrated their victory, inviting competitors over to the winning Illawarra Flame House, which transformed into an overnight party pad in true student style.

“It took about an hour and a half to clean up in the morning and hose the beer off the back deck,” said Niccol.

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