May 16, 2024 • Tom Nelson

A Cool Day in the Sun

Spearheaded by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon throws down the gauntlet to university students: design and construct a fully solar-powered house. These innovative houses undergo a barrage of tests and trials to determine the cream of the crop. At its core, the competition aims to spotlight the practicality of solar energy for everyday consumers while equipping students with hands-on expertise in real-world design and construction.

Back in 2002, I had the honor of being part of the University of Virginia team for the inaugural Solar Decathlon. Armed with a Mechanical Engineering degree, my primary focus revolved around fine-tuning the plumbing and HVAC systems of our pride and joy, affectionately known as the Trojan Goat.

Hours upon hours were poured into drafting and redrafting, followed by relentless toil in building and testing. Our goal? Crafting a setup that minimized energy wastage and maximized efficiency, ingeniously repurposing solar energy for secondary and tertiary uses. If the primary domestic hot water tank didn’t need heating, we diverted the energy to warm up the backup tank or the water supply for the radiant floor heating system. And if all else failed, we stashed the surplus heat in a colossal custom-made storage tank for future use.

On the dawn of the competition’s first day, I anxiously observed as the water temperature surged upon exiting the solar panels, a tangible sign that our system was indeed harnessing solar energy to produce hot water. It was a defining moment, a testament to our team’s dedication and ingenuity.

For me, that was one of the competition’s biggest highlights.

To my delight, we won the Design and Livability competition. None other than Glenn Murcutt, noted architect and competition juror, gushed, “The design of solar homes must be as poetic as it is rational. The Virginia team fully considered building materials, insulation, ventilation, and the use of light – whole building, sustainable design. There was little question that Virginia had the most inspired house.”

There is no doubt that I found the house and the process inspiring as well; it was a key catalyst in my decision to go to graduate school and get a Master’s Degree in Architecture!

The lessons gained from this process were innumerable. I learned that things are never going to work out quite how you expect them to, so it is best to stay as flexible as possible and never lose sight of the big picture. Also, the more details you can work out beforehand, the better off you’ll be in the long run.

The euphoria of witnessing our systems come to life as envisioned, and then reflecting on all of the blood, sweat, and tears that it took to reach that point, was one of the most satisfying feelings that I have ever experienced.

This project epitomized the symbiotic relationship between architects and engineers, fostering a deeper appreciation for each other’s perspectives. Over the span of a year, it provided insights into the architects’ point of view, and made me realize how intriguing I found their vantage point.


Main decathlon website:

Check out the house my University of Virginia team designed back in 2002:

Where is the Trojan Goat now?:

More about the Trojan Goat:


Tom Nelson, AIA, LEED AP

Sustainability Architect