A group of dedicated students from Monash University are about to embark on a two-year sustainable building challenge in which they will design and construct a net-zero energy home in Melbourne.

It is part of the annual US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, that draws the participation of universities from all over the world and requires students to design sustainable buildings across a range of categories from small family homes to schools and office buildings.  

…one of the best things about doing this sort of practical project is we’ve learned so many skills that you just don’t have access to in the scope of a normal degree

Allegra de Gleria Clark, MSDT TEAM MEMBER

Having formed just three years ago, Monash’s Solar Decathlon Team which has around 50 members has already achieved podium finishes two years in a row, including a first place in the suburban single-family home division for a bushfire resistant house they designed in the wake of the 2019/20 Aussie fires.

This year for the first time, they will enter the building component of the challenge, requiring them to see a single family home project all the way from design to construction, sourcing their funding, materials and partner organisations along the way. 

After one year, the designs will be assessed for feasibility and whether the team has created viable enough partnerships to see the projects through, followed by the build phase the following year. 

This will not come easy, requiring the support of industry in providing funding, materials and guidance. 

“If no one’s interested we don’t get to do the build portion of it. If we don’t have funding, we don’t get to do the build portion of it,” team spokesperson Jamali Kigotho told The Fifth Estate

“So we first have to find partners or an organisation that is interested and that would have a use for it. We don’t want to just build a house for a house’s sake and then try to find the need for it.”

However, the team are highly motivated and passionate about sustainable design far beyond what is required in their core studies. 

Most of the students are in their second or third year of undergraduate degrees. Most are studying bachelors of engineering, however, there are also some from across business and commerce, science, design and architecture and IT. 

While sustainability is addressed in most of the courses, the sustainable building challenge has taken the students well beyond the curriculum and given them an opportunity to share their passion with others. 

“As a materials engineering [student] we don’t really cover how to design net zero buildings in our course, so we’ve definitely had to do a lot of learning on the fly,” Allegra de Gleria Clark said. 

“That’s one of the best things about doing this sort of practical project is we’ve learned so many skills that you just don’t have access to in the scope of a normal degree.” 

“Something that’s really defined my experience in this team is there are a lot of people that come from different disciplines but all have an interest in sustainability, and we’ve really come together to bring some of that into our degree where maybe it wasn’t so present previously,” she said.  

Project Rest Recover Empower

The team’s 2019 design for a women’s refuge, titled Project Rest Recover Empower, received third place in the 2020-2021 attached housing division. 

Project Rest Recover Empower

The team worked closely with domestic violence organisation Kara House to design a building that catered towards the specific needs of those fleeing domestic violence, namely providing temporary housing for 4-6 weeks while longer-term accommodation is found.

While the design remains purely hypothetical, the team is keen to see its ideas become reality in the future to create better women’s refuges.

One of the team’s building’s key design features is the ability to change the number of bedrooms accessible from each unit by shifting an upstairs wall, allowing it to house eight women and up to 24 children at any one time, with access to plenty of private and shared space. 

Of course the design also contains cutting edge sustainability features. On top of rooftop solar panels and passive solar design it uses thermally efficient and low embodied carbon materials. 

For the first time last year, the competition required the teams to calculate the embodied carbon of their builds, as well as being net zero in operation. 

The main feature in the design the team used to reduce embodied emissions was the concrete slab, which they did in two ways. 

Rather than having a traditional concrete slab the team used Australian company, Wagner’s Earth Friendly Concrete, that incorporates by-products from the mining industry to cut down on embodied carbon. 

Another was the use of polystyrene blocks called Waffle Pods, that can be used as void fillers in concrete slabs to reduce the amount of material required, as well as helping with insulation. 

One of the aims of the team is to spread the word among peers and beyond of the possibilities in sustainable design and its importance in benefitting us all now and into the future. 

“We’re trying to use our design, in our small way, to spread the word about the importance of sustainability and give more exposure to the importance of sustainable design,” de Gleria Clark said.   

“Obviously, with a build challenge that will be a lot easier as we’ll have an actual physical building there to show what can actually be achieved and what a net zero building actually looks like.” 

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  1. If anyone’s interested, Builders Declare are doing a talk on how to practically achieve this exact thing tomorrow (Wed 28th 5pm). See Instagram @builders_declareau for tickets.

  2. One project should be to design a 2 bedroom house for the community housing industry. We need zero carbon, so zero (as close as poss) heating and cooling, PV almost a must all to Passivehaus standard or as close as. Low interior and exterior maintenance, remembering the build cost is so important because we are limited to the rent we can charge, to ~25% – 30% of household income, usually just one person. If possible 2 story because land is expensive and we have to pay commercial rates, even if we buy off the government. Can you do it?

  3. Fantastic initiative.
    One would have to ask why this hasn’t been happening for the past decade though.
    At least Wooloongong UNit & Illawarra Tafe have been doing it.