Milwaukee/Madison student design team earns national notice

Designing low-income housing at a price point that homeowners of modest means can afford long-term makes sense. However, the reality of fluctuating energy costs means that some homeowners are priced out of their homes when a bitterly cold winter or sweltering summer wreaks havoc on their energy bills.

A combined team of students from the School of Architecture & Urban Planning at UW-Milwaukee and the College of Engineering at UW-Madison are attracting national attention for a design that combines the convenience of urban living with maximum energy-efficiency standards.

Five people stand in a hallway.
Solar Decathlon team members from UWM include Nick Smith, Maxwell Rodencal, Samantha Blackstad, Chris Klawitter and Lucas Anderson. (UWM Photo/Troye Fox)

In April, these students will travel to Golden, Colorado, to present their design, titled Domus Solis (Latin for “solar home”), as invited participants in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Design Challenge Weekend. If the Madison-Milwaukee combined team advances beyond the design challenge weekend, they will begin plans to build a prototype of Domus Solis near downtown Madison in preparation for the Solar Decathlon Build Challenge event in Washington, D.C., in 2020.

“When you’re designing low-income housing, what banks care about is the mortgage, not the energy costs,” said Mark Keane, UWM architecture professor and Solar Decathlon advisor. “This student team is literally taking energy costs out of the equation by developing the wall sections of the homes for maximum insulation. When you do that, folks who are low income can stay in homes of quality.”

The five UWM students, one freshman and four junior architecture majors, have been working on designs for Domus Solis since late October, when Madison’s engineering students tapped UWM for its design expertise. The UWM group is led by Max Rodencal, a junior architecture major whom Keane calls the team’s “source for getting things done.”

UWM team members also include Nick Smith, Samantha Blackstad, Chris Klawitter and Lucas Anderson.

In addition to designing a charming but complex gabled attic and heavily insulated walls in their proposed zero-net energy development just outside downtown Madison, the team is now planning for an unexpected road trip through the Colorado Rockies in the middle of their semester.

“They’re all overachievers,” Keane said. “They’ve got this.”

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