The West Virginia University and University of Rome Tor Vergata Solar Decathlon team is back – and the nearly 50 students involved are ready to design, build and operate an affordable, attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered house as part of the 2015 competition sponsored by the United States Department of Energy.

And make no mistake: they are ready to win.

That was the message delivered on July 29 on the campus of West Virginia University as WVU leadership announced its selection as one of 16 schools to participate in the 2015 competition held Oct. 8-18 in Irvine, California.

“This is an exciting time for West Virginia University as it enters the grand stage that is the Solar Decathlon,” said WVU President Gordon Gee. “We are proud to have global partners at the University of Rome Tor Vergata standing side-by-side with us. This type of collaboration — which stretches beyond borders — is key to the vitality of the future of technology and energy-efficiency living. We need new options, new ideas and new visioning. And that is where these students come into play. The world is relying on their ingenuity and innovation. I believe some of that will emerge from this competition.”

The 16 schools making the trip to Irvine have spent nearly two years from vision to execution to make their sun-powered homes a reality. The hard work of the WVU team hasn’t gone unnoticed by Gene Cilento, Glen H. Hiner Dean of the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

“There is an incredible amount of planning that goes into the proposal submission process,” Cilento said. “Once selected, the ‘real work’ of building the house in collaboration with their colleagues in Rome begins.”

In order to maximize their time and talents, WVU partnered for the second time with the University of Rome Tor Vergata to produce a house that merges Italian and Appalachian design concepts with innovative energy techniques to demonstrate that comfort doesn’t need to be sacrificed in order to live with solar power.

The 10 students from Italy arrived on-campus in early July and will remain in the United States to assist with the WVU team’s efforts until the competition in October.

“We have a long-standing relationship between WVU and the University of Rome Tor Vergata,” said Dimitris Korakakis, faculty advisor and professor of computer science and electrical engineering. “Since this is a multi-faceted project, their expertise complimented our weaknesses.”

Rome Tor Vergata faculty advisor Stefano Cordiner agrees, saying the partnership has been just as rewarding of an experience for their students.

“We really enjoy our collaboration with WVU,” said Stefano. “The students and academic community in general has really welcomed our students and broadened their horizons, both inside and outside of the classroom.”

The schools combined their strengths to develop a design and agreed on the name STILE, which stands for Sustainable Technologies Integrated in a Learning Experience. Their vision was to design the structure to be simplistic and compact, covered by an elegant, Roman-inspired arch. The house maximizes public spaces, promotes an open flow with the outdoors and shades the house.

Executing their vision for design required an interdisciplinary approach. The students built a dynamic cross-section of students with broad skills and academic strengths.

The project is led by Statler students, but includes contributions from the College of Creative Arts, the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences who play integral roles in the execution of the project, such as helping to raise additional support beyond the $100,000 grant from the DOE. The total cost of the house cannot exceed $250,000.

In order to raise the funds needed to build the house, the team has launched a crowd-funding initiative, which can be accessed at Gifts-in-kind are also needed. Interested sponsors can contact Solar Decathlon team member Lauren Hogan at or Statler College Associate Director of Development Heather Cross at or (304) 293-4156.

According to senior interior design major Samantha Millard from Hidden Valley Lake, California, the interdisciplinary collaboration aspect of the project is one of many elements of the competition that makes participation worth the investment of time and hard work.

“We all work together on jobs we may not have otherwise taken on,” said Millard, who is heavily involved in the design of the project. “We also learn how to relate to each other. I’ve learned to talk to engineers because of the collaboration – we definitely speak different languages, but it’s essential that we learn to communicate with each other in order to succeed.”

WVU made its inaugural appearance in the biennial Solar Decathlon in 2013. While it didn’t build its way to a victory, the team did bring home a wealth of invaluable experience – experience that team member Sharrafti Kuzmar decided to apply to this year’s design as the project lead.

“I decided to enter the competition again because it was such an incredible opportunity in 2013,” said Kuzmar, a senior computer science and electrical engineering major from Morgantown. “It was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, but I made great friends and learned to apply what I learned and work with others. That experience is invaluable and simulates the post-graduation work environment.”

Kuzmar said their strategic approach to the house is vastly altered from their last showing. The improvements are demonstrated most notably in the build process.

“We are designing more modularly this time around,” said Kuzmar. “Last time, we built around the center of the house and we had to completely rebuild once we arrived in California. We have eliminated a lot of our rebuild efforts by organizing the house in sections that we can ship to California in one piece.”

The students have six weeks to finish the build and prepare to ship the house to Irvine on Sept. 15. They will make the trip 10 days later to prepare on-site for the competition.

While the students are aiming for a victory, Korakakis says this is already a success story regardless of the outcome.

“It would be great to see the students recognized for their hard work with a first-place finish,” said Korakakis. “Whatever the result is, this is already a success for both WVU and Tor Vergata. These students have learned cultural and real-world lessons that transcend the classroom and will make them a valued commodity in a competitive job market. Their personal growth can’t be measured.”

The Solar Decathlon was established in 2002 and consists of 10 contests designed to gauge the environmental performance and livability of each team’s submission. The contests cover everything from architecture and market appeal to engineering, comfort level, appliances and home entertainment. The winning team must produce as much or more energy than it consumes.