Illawarra Flame – UOW and the International Solar Decathlon

Some recent AUSCCER Blog posts have been exploring issues around practical responses to climate change, including how we keep warm or keep cool in the Illawarra. In this vein, for the last few months, I have been working with a team of students, academics and professionals from UOW, Illawarra TAFE, and local professional practices, on UOW’s entry in the International Solar Decathlon. This team will pit its skills at designing, building and retrofitting a solar-powered house against some of the best universities in the world in the finals of the 2013 Solar Decathlon: China competition. Team UOW will compete against 24 teams from 13 countries in a bid to design, build and operate an advanced and appealing solar-powered house that is not only energy efficient but also cost effective to build.

There are now three international Solar Decathlon competitions: USA, Europe and China. Team UOW was invited to participate in both the USA and China competitions, and chose China, both because it is in our geographic region, and because it has a far greater diversity of competitors (most of the teams in the USA competition are from the USA). While I occasionally regret passing up California in summer (the USA competition will be held at Irvine, California – interestingly enough the place which generated William Cronon’s seminal book, Uncommon Ground), China is clearly going to be very exciting. The Solar Decathlon China competition is hosted by the US Department of Energy, the China National Energy Administration and Peking University. ‘Team UOW’ is the first team from an Australian university to win a place in the Solar Decathlon finals. One of the strengths of Team UOW is its partnership with Illawarra TAFE, so we have strong practical building skills wedded to design and engineering skills.

The Team UOW entry will be built in Wollongong and then shipped to Datong, about 300 kilometres from Beijing, to compete alongside other houses during a two week display period in August 2013. Datong is a major coal-mining city in China, so has interesting connections to Wollongong.

My role, through AUSCCER, has so far had three dimensions. I have supervised student projects; developed the initial landscape design concept; and been busy promoting the cultural dimensions of the project. ‘Decathlon’ means ‘ten competitions’, and the competitions include demonstrating the liveability of the house through hosting dinner parties and movie nights for other competitors, as well as proving that it is a marketable concept. The two student projects have included an assessment of water saving features; and a proposal for a unique dining event. Human geography student Chenae Neilson researched and wrote ‘A Celebration of Local Foods: Dinner with the Illawarra Flame‘, analysing how Team UOW could host a dinner based on a ‘100 Mile Diet‘ for the Illawarra. For the landscape concept, we decided that the sustainability principles embodied in the house should extend all the way to the site boundaries and beyond, and are exploring how we can creatively do this, while showcasing the unique values and symbols of the Illawarra. I am happy to claim some credit for the team identity, Illawarra Flame, although this has subsequently been skillfully enhanced by the design team.

A unique aspect of the Team UOW entry is that it is a retrofit, rather than a newly-designed house. While this gives us major challenges (it’s a whole lot easier to design a beautiful, sustainable house from scratch – see the gorgeous 2011 NZ entry First Light), it also has far more relevance. As Illawarra Flame’s website says, the project aims to demonstrate that it is possible to transform the vast majority of Australian homes into stylish, affordable, and sustainable homes of the future. The fibro home is a distinctive expression of Australian domestic architecture. These houses were built in great numbers during the post-war period to a standard design, using a minimum of materials. They are ubiquitous to the suburban streets of Australia’s capitals and regional centres.

It’s lots of work, and lots of fun, and it’s about changing the world. As Lesley said in an earlier blog post, it’s adapting to climate change – just doing it. Any students who want to get involved in a million dollar (that’s how much sponsorship we have to raise!), high profile, international competition, should contact Lloyd Niccol, Project Manager and UOW postgrad (, Professor Paul Cooper, Team UOW Director (, or myself ( You can also find us on Twitter:, and Facebook:

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