Though separated by more than 7,000 miles of land and ocean, not to mention a huge cultural divide, students from FIU in Miami and Tsinghua University in Beijing are teaming up to develop an energy efficient, cost-effective and attractive solar-powered house for the Solar Decathlon (SD) China competition to be held in August in Datong, China.

The students are one of 23 teams in the competition – which is the result of a memorandum of understanding between the governments of the United States and the People’s Republic of China, which states that the two nations “have a common goal in fostering sustainable economic and social development while encouraging the use of renewable energy sources and recognize that solar energy development and use is an important part of their collaboration.”

Rendering of the house being developed by students from Tsinghua University and FIU for the Solar Decathlon China 2013 competition.

Representatives from the two universities first met in September of 2011 when Professor Irtishad Ahmad, director of FIU’s OHL School of Construction, and Yimin Zhu, associate professor and the school’s graduate program director, traveled to China to discuss details of collaboration with the team at Tsinghua University.

For the last several months, a group of about 20 students and faculty from FIU’s College of Engineering and Computing and School of Architecture have been communicating with a team of more than 50 students at Tsinghua University via Skype, phone and email and sharing documents on Dropbox to work on the design of a house approximately 800 square feet in size. Construction on the first house – a second will be built prior to the competition – began in December, with plans to unveil it at Tsinghua University’s anniversary this spring.

“It’s a very good experience for the students,” said Cheng-Xian “Charlie” Lin, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, who has been working with students on the photovoltaic solar panel system for the house. “We are working closely with the team in China, which really helps us to get on the same page. We can meet face to face to discuss more effectively in detail the progress. We share a lot of information and work with the students almost every day.”

During the nine days of the competition, the energy consumed by each house is generated by solar energy solutions. The competition will assess the team’s ability to conserve energy, control their physical environment and ability to be fully energy sufficient. Modeled after the Olympic decathlon competition, each home will be evaluated on their performance in 10 contests.

The choice of Datong as the site for the competition is an interesting one as the city has long been known for coal mining and has developed a reputation for being one of China’s most polluted cities. The city is seeking to clean up its environment and loosen its dependence on coal, however, and has begun developing substitute industries such as machinery manufacturing, tourism and logistics services.

“The city is the center of coal production, definitely not clean energy production in China,” said Marilys Nepomechie, professor of architecture at FIU, who served as faculty advisor two years ago and is also working with the architecture team for SD China 2013. “The Chinese are really interested in taking the country in a new direction, changing the image of their cities. They are using the Solar Decathlon as an opportunity to begin that conversation with the world.”

FIU faculty and students have traveled to China to meet with students at Tsinghua University in workshops to prepare for the Solar Decathlon China 2013 competition.

Many members of the FIU team bring their experience to the table from participating in the Solar Decathlon 2011 in Washington, D.C. They have shared lessons learned from that experience with team members in China in an effort to be prepared for the myriad of issues they can face when the competition begins and the newly constructed house is open to judges and the public.

“We learned a lot in 2011,”said Nepomechie, who traveled to China last June with Zhu and Thomas Spiegelhalter, assistant professor of architecture and co-director of the Environmental technology Lab, for the first workshop with the Tsinghua team. “But actually the industry moves really quickly. There are new materials, new equipment, new systems, which are more efficient than they were even a year ago. So, we are keeping up with that and making good choices.”

German Gomez, an engineering student who also was on the team in 2011, said the experience from the previous competition has helped them be better prepared for the challenges that await the project in China.

“Being that this is the second time we have done this has been great because you don’t have the anxiety you had the first time when you don’t know what you’re doing,” he explained. “This time we know a little more about what we’re doing, and when we spoke with the Chinese students it’s still very abstract to them.”

Zhihui Zhang, a professor of construction management at Tsinghua University, visited FIU in January to meet with members of the team. He said FIU’s experience in the Solar Decathlon makes it a valuable partner in this competition.

“This is the first time Tsinghua University has participated in the Solar Decathlon,” he said through an interpreter. “Our faculty and students are learning a lot from FIU’s experience. Two other schools from China have participated in the competition before and we want to be sure we do not get left behind because Tsinghua is one of the top engineering schools in China.”

SD China will be hosted by the National Energy Administration of China and the U.S. Department of Energy, co-hosted by the Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, supported by All-China Students Federation Secretariat, and organized by Peking University.

The design for the house the students are building for SD China 2013 has elements of traditional Chinese architecture while also incorporating the latest in sustainable technology.

“It’s got feet in different worlds,” Nepomechie said. “And I think it does it really elegantly.”

For more information about the Solar Decathlon China 2013, contact Zhu at (305) 348 3517 or