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The 2021 1st Prize SPARC House

Through competing in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2021 Build Challenge, the University of Colorado Boulder Solar Decathlon Team aims to address the housing attainability crisis and construction challenges faced by mountain towns across the country. By designing, building, and operating the zero energy plus SPARC House, we will demonstrate that high performance home design and attainability are not only possible, but also mutually beneficial. The five design pillars of the SPARC House include Sustainability, Performance, Attainability, Resilience, and Community.

Our Mission

The SPARC House aims to demonstrate innovative solutions to the lack of attainable and sustainable housing for mountain communities across the nation.

Behind the name: The SPARC House.


    • A triple-bottom-line approach to sustainability was fundamental in the development of the CU Boulder team's design philosophy. The SPARC house aims to address three principles of sustainability: economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental protection. The remaining four pillars that comprise the foundation of the SPARC House are all rooted in the core concept of sustainability.


    • High energy performance is critical to reducing the home’s environmental impact, as well as providing low operating costs for homeowners. SPARC incorporates multiple design strategies that improve performance, including a small footprint and highly insulated, airtight structure. The house maximizes natural ventilation and daylighting with orientation-tuned glazing and a low window-to-wall-ratio on the north façade. Additional high-efficiency equipment—such as zone-based ductless minisplit heat pumps, an energy recovery ventilator, a heat pump water heater, maximum power point tracking on the solar panels, and a central control system—help engage occupants in easy operation of the house.


    • To promote attainability, the SPARC House is designed to leverage prefabrication construction methods that can reduce building costs. An attached rental unit brings in supplemental income for the homeowners while offering more affordable rental options for seasonal workers who support tourism in mountain towns.


    • The SPARC House embraces the concept of resilience with on-site energy generation, electrical provisions for future battery storage, grid islanding capabilities, demand response capability, and a building automation system that can proactively control the space for daily energy efficiency and to achieve a grid-friendly electric demand profile. With demand response functions, the SPARC House can react to signals from the utility, if a local program exists, and reduce stress on the grid as needed. Additionally, the building envelope is made of durable materials that require minimal maintenance over time and can be repaired with relative ease.


    • The SPARC House’s rental unit provides a multifaceted solution to the displacement of seasonal and year-round service workers in mountain towns. The approach strengthens communities by meeting the needs of those who may not be able to afford typical living costs, but play an integral role in shaping local economies. Long-term rentals also foster interaction and communication within towns, promoting the development of new relationships and unified neighborhoods. With the adoption of the SPARC House, mountain towns will be able to showcase the power of sustainable housing and sustainable communities.

Our Team

As future leaders and industry professionals, our team as a unique sense of understanding the problems surrounding climate change, residential building, and the complexities of mountain town living. These problems motivate us to push the boundaries of design, all while making cost-cutting decisions to create attainable housing for mountain communities across the nation. Our team is comprised of interdisciplinary students from engineering, environmental design, and business majors.


Sponsors and Collaborators

We are especially grateful to Kristen Taddonio, Joe Smyth,
and our family and friends who have made this project possible!

The Problem

Mountain towns represent a unique situation of economic factors, housing supply, and complications with building new real estate. Summit County, Grand County, Pitkin County, and Eagle County account for the large majority of mountain towns. These towns fueled by economic activity from nearby mountain resorts create large influxes of population from the seasonal workforce during the winter months. Summit county has one of the lowest unemployment rates in America sitting at 2.0%, forcing small business owners to work long hours, or shut down portions of their operations because of the lack of supply. 


Homeowners are more likely to list an extra bedroom on Airbnb rather than renting it to the local community. Additionally, without subsidies or rent ceilings, seasonal workers making less than $40,000 a year often cannot afford rent. The problems for seasonal workers will only compound, as the front range of Colorado continues to grow at a pace faster than the national average, creating more tourism and a need for more housing for seasonal employees. 

A picture from Fraser, Colorado, the town in which our house is built.

These Colorado mountain counties are becoming some of the most expensive counties to live in across the nation. Like most places, after the recession and the housing bubble in 2007-2008, supply growth in housing slowed dramatically, then lagged to catch up to demand in recent years creating rising prices. When building began again, rather than building a variety of housing options to accompany all demographics, multimillion-dollar mansions out-paced smaller entry-level homes. In Grand County in 2017, the median home price was $297,000, and the Summit County median home price was $547,000, 2.52 times greater than the national average. Even more shocking, the average price of a single-family home in Summit County was $731,500 (Data USA); both Eagle and Pitkin county depict a similar picture in housing demographics.  


The accelerated growth in housing prices well out-paced wage growth, pricing many people out of homeownership in the region. The lack of supply and recent appreciation of homes has created a nearly impossible situation for first-time homebuyers in mountain regions. In order to revive the middle class and promote young families to move to mountain communities, flexible financing and an increased supply of entry level homes is a must.

Who it affects?

  1. First-time home buyers
  2. Young Families
  3. Middle Class
  4. Year round residents
  5. Seasonal Workers

Construction Challenges

  • Short Building Season

    • Construction can only primarily be completed during the months of May to September. Many sites must wait for the ground to thaw and the underground water to disappear before digging foundations or laying infrastructure.

  • Unpredictable Climate

    • Snow storms and freezing cause problems with construction timelines both increasing costs and time of construction.

  • Distance from Building Materials

    • Building materials must be shipped from the Colorado front range introducing more construction risk, time, and costs. 

  • Labor Shortages

    • General and sub-contractors struggle to find labor to complete builds with the unemployment rate under 2%. This causes construction sites to slow or stop complete while contractors look for laborers.

    • Contractors are more likely to take luxury home contracts rather than smaller, cheaper homes. In some cases making it impossible to build entry level homes at some times during the year.

The Solution

Click below for a virtual tour of the house!

Key Design Elements

The SPARC House is a prototype intended for replicability achieved with modular construction,

integrated systems, and the flexibility of an accessory Rental Unit, also referred to in the student project as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). Designed for our future site and clients in Fraser, CO, a distinct part of our target market. We designed this house to be attainable for first-time homebuyers, young families, and seasonal workers who struggle to find attainable housing. The SPARC House consists of three modules, each made from prefabricated wall panels, filling the needs of our target market with the Main Unit first floor (kitchen, living), the Rental Unit, and the Main Unit second floor (master bedroom, master bath, and multi-use space).

Threefold Approach

  1. Modularity

  2. Integration

  3. Rental Unit

Fast construction methods like prefabrication and modulatory


Reduce energy, maintenance, and recovery costs in a harsh climate


Provide supplemental homeowner income; motivate local investment


The modular component of this home, through prefabricated wall panels, is a key aspect in our solution. We partnered with a company called Simple Homes who is bringing the Swedish modular style of construction to America. We designed and built the home borrowing from Swedish modular style, meaning each wall segment was separately constructed in a factory and shipped to the site. The panels were finished with framing, insulation, weather resistive barrier, and air/vapor barriers, then shipped to the site for assembly.


The panels were transported from Simple Homes to Fraser over the Continental Divide. The panels were assembled onsite in two days.

Rental Unit

Option 1: Use the additional revenue to subsidize monthly housing expenses.

35.8% Savings

Option 2: Use the additional revenue to increase the monthly mortgage payment to pay off a standard 30 year fixed mortgage.

41% Faster

Option 3: Use the additional revenue as a subsidy of the normal mortgage, effectively reducing the price of the home. 

26.5% Savings

The Rental Unit, also referred to as the Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU), combats attainability on two fronts by creating revenue for the homeowner and provide affordable, quality housing for seasonal workers of mountain communities. Home owners have 3 different options to use the additionally revenue while living in the SPARC home. 

Integration Narratives


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