The Solar Decathlon student home-design competition is an ideal venue for spotting whiz-bang technologies and cutting-edge innovation, and this year’s crop of houses is no exception.

Sponsored by the Department of Energy, the biennial Decathlon is a program that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.

“The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency,” the agency says.

The 19 teams and their solar-powered houses compete in 10 categories (each worth 100 points) that include engineering, hot-water generation, affordability (a new category this year), market appeal, energy balance, and architecture. Because of the number of categories, it’s not unusual for teams to do poorly in one area and make up for it in another.

This year’s architecture category will be judged by a three-person panel that includes architect Michelle Kaufmann of Michelle Kaufmann Studio in Oakland, Calif., Paul Hutton of Hutton Architecture Studio in Denver, and Bob Schubert, a professor of architecture and associate dean for research in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech.

The architectural judges will focus on elements such as the scale and proportion of room and facade features, indoor/outdoor connections, composition, and linking of various house elements; holistic design; and the integration and energy efficiency of electrical and natural light, among other characteristics.

Though all schools employed a number of worthwhile sustainable strategies and cutting-edge architectural explorations, some schools opted for market-driven designs that would appeal to a broader segment of the home-buying population. And many designs were inspired by the regions from whence they came.

Fan-favorite (in the People’s Choice Awards voting) Appalachian State was inspired by traditional Appalachian settlements for its Solar Homestead project, which is composed of six outbuilding modules connected to form the Great Porch—an outdoor living space protected by an 8.2-kilowatt trellis of bifacial solar cells.

Team Maryland’s WaterShed house focuses on protecting watershed environments by managing stormwater runoff. The home “displays harmony between modernity, tradition, and simple building strategies, balancing time-trusted best practices and cutting-edge technological solutions to achieve high efficiency performance in an affordable manner,” the school says.

And Middlebury College  opted for a very recognizable gable roof for its Self-Reliance home. “We have distilled the architecture of the New England farmhouse into a pure gable form,” the school writes. “Tradition guided our design but still allowed us to innovate. We drew primarily upon the gable roof, a regional form, to help us deal with the climatic burden of snow and rain.”

Take a look at these and other cool designs from this year’s competition.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Denver, CO.