On September 21, people around the world seek to minimize or eliminate their use of fossil fuels on Zero Emissions Day.

Difficult, right? Not at these homes built for the Solar Decathlon: They make cutting out carbon emissions practical, affordable … and breathtakingly stylish.

Started at the U.S. Department of Energy in 2002, the Solar Decathlon has grown to include competitions in China, Europe, and Latin America and the Caribbean. Every two years, universities around the world design, build and show off solar-powered, zero-emission houses. Using today’s technology, these houses represent the future of sustainable living.


Tongji University’s “Bamboo House” (Ministerio de Fomento/Flickr)

Shanghai’s Tongji University is no stranger to the Solar Decathlon, competing in Europe and the United States. Its 2010 Solar Decathlon Europe entry, “Bamboo House,” produces three times as much energy as it consumes. In 2011, the team created “Y-Container,” an affordable solar house built with recycled shipping containers.


Team Austria’s 2013 “LISI” House (Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Austria’s Vienna University of Technology won the previous U.S. Solar Decathlon with “LISI (Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation),” which collects rainwater to keep patio plants healthy. Exterior curtains can move to form a private “cocoon,” and excess solar energy can charge electric vehicles.

United States

Panoramic view of Stanford University’s “Start.Home” (Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Stanford University focused on technology and affordability in 2013, building a home around a cost-effective, prefabricated “Core” of appliances and efficiency software designed by the team. “The Core is like an engine for homes, and you can build any shell you want around it,” says Derek Ouyang, project manager for Start.Home.

The 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon, which features teams from U.S., European and Central American universities, will take place in Irvine, California, from October 8 to 18.


Instituto de Arquitectura Avanzada de Cataluña’s “FabLab House” (Ministerio de Fomento/Flickr)

According to designers, the funky “FabLab House” became known as “whale belly,” “peanut house” or “cinnamon submarine” to visitors at the Solar Decathlon Europe in 2010. State-of-the-art flexible solar panels enabled its unique shape.

Latin America and Caribbean: A new home for the Solar Decathlon

Kinetic energy powers this dance floor in Cali, Colombia, site of the 2015 Solar Decathlon Latin America and Caribbean. (Solar Decathlon Latin America and Caribbean 2015/Flickr)

This year, the Solar Decathlon is expanding to Latin America and the Caribbean. To kick off coverage in Cali, Colombia, salsa dancers showed off a “kinetic dance floor” that generates electricity from movement. This year’s competition will focus on social housing designed for the tropics.

So today, challenge yourself to minimize fossil fuel use on Zero Emissions Day. Thanks to the houses (and dance floors) of the Solar Decathlons, celebrating the future of sustainability looks bright.