Architecture is the avenue where form, function, creativity, and standards intersect, yielding a plan and design for something that greatly impacts people: a building. The true beauty of a building is revealed in how it serves people. These are the places in which we live, learn, work, play, dream, worship, and more. And these are the places that build communities.

Keeping people at the forefront when planning and designing structures is second nature to Ball State students at the University’s R. Wayne Estopinal College of Architecture and Planning (CAP). The planning and design of an affordable, net-zero energy duplex home—which will house two families in the Near Eastside neighborhood of Westminster/St. Philip Neri in Indianapolis—is an example of those efforts.

CAP students’ work on the duplex, dubbed the “Alley House,” is a project for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon® 2023 Build Challenge, an international competition. A multi-disciplinary group of CAP students and faculty have been working since the Fall 2021 semester on this five-semester-long project for the Solar Decathlon.

“The driving force leading our creative energy is thinking about the families who will call our project home,” said Matt Martella, one of the CAP students working on the duplex. “Sure, it would be incredible to win this competition. But at the end of the day, we care most about the families we are fortunate enough to serve.

“One element I am excited about is thinking through the way a net-zero home can positively impact a family bound by limited financial resources,” Mr. Martella added. “A home that can come close to wiping out energy bills lifts a major financial burden, allowing a family to put its resources to better use.”

All six of CAP’s student teams competing in this year’s Solar Decathlon Design and Build Challenges have advanced to the finals in the categories of New Housing, Retrofit Housing, Attached Housing, and Office Building and Education Building. Five of the six teams are participating in the design challenge portion of the competition, and one team is competing in the build challenge. For this project, CAP’s community partner is Englewood Community Development Corporation (Englewood CDC).

Project participants from Ball State include interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate and graduate students from all four CAP departments: Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Urban Planning, and Construction Management and Interior Design. Approximately 100 undergraduate and graduate students will be involved directly through enrollment in eight courses over five semesters (Fall 2021, Spring 2022, Summer 2022, Fall 2022, Spring 2023) at Ball State’s Muncie campus and Ball State CAP: Indy Center located on the Near Eastside.


Pam Harwood, a professor of Architecture in CAP, said the Alley House two-family dwelling “will be built in a rapidly transforming urban neighborhood where the lack of affordable family housing accelerates as Indianapolis continues to urbanize at an unprecedented rate.

Professor Pam Harwood

This duplex, Professor Harwood continued, “Will be part of a much larger initiative of our community partner Englewood CDC, and Gratus Development. They are building 40 units or 20 duplex family homes. We are working with Englewood CDC to provide one net-zero energy home in the overall Englewood Homes project.”

Another unique feature of the Alley House is the families’ access to “high-quality, healthy housing that is affordable and provides a rent-to-purchase agreement after 15 years, leading to stability in the neighborhood, preventing gentrification, and increasing the amount of high-quality family housing in this area,” Professor Harwood said. She added that the hope is to provide measured results, over time, of the cost-savings of this high-performance, passive house certified home—which could help pave the way for future net-zero energy affordable housing.


This Solar Decathlon effort is one of Ball State’s immersive learning projects—high-impact learning experiences that involve collaborative student-driven teams, guided by faculty mentors. Students earn credit for working with community partners such as businesses, nonprofits, and government agencies to address community challenges through the creation of a product that has a lasting impact.

“CAP never ceases to find hands-on learning opportunities for all its students and, because of that, I feel myself and other students have a solid education backing us up as we head into our professional careers,” said Emily Rheinheimer, a CAP graduate student studying Architecture. Ms. Rheinheimer is on one of the CAP teams competing in the Solar Decathlon.

Emily Rheinheimer

“I am also gaining a lot of experience working with a multi-disciplinary team,” Ms. Rheinheimer added. “Especially as a student lead, I have had to try and help balance meetings, wants and needs, and requirements for architecture students, interior design students, landscape architecture students, construction management students, faculty, clients, and industry partners. The experience I am having in this project is greatly enhancing my community engagement and leadership skills.” 

Solar Decathlon participation isn’t new to CAP. Each year, multi-disciplinary teams of students from CAP compete in the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge by designing high-performance, low-carbon affordable homes.

Professor Harwood; Tom Collins, associate professor in Architecture; and Dan Overbey, assistant professor in Architecture have recently received a Sustained (three-year) Immersive Learning Provost’s Grant to support student participation in the Solar Decathlon—allowing the team to design and build the Alley House in Indianapolis in 2023, and then facilitate another student-driven, design and build, net-zero energy dwelling for Muncie in 2025.

“Participating in a net-zero energy design project is an integral part the CAP undergraduate and graduate education, and immersive learning is a highlight of both the Ball State and CAP Experience,” Professor Harwood explained. “The Alley House design/build challenge hits both of these targets.”

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