In a twist many aging Evanstonians will appreciate, young Northwestern students are seeking their advice. This year, for the first time, NU is participating in the Solar Decathlon, a competition organized by the Department of Energy for which students design and build a 1,000 square-foot, solar-powered home. Each of the 13 universities participating in this year’s competition have identified their own unique target market around which their house is designed. NU’s team is designing a home for adults in the “Baby Boomer” generation that will serve as a model for aging in place in Evanston.  

Retirement and downsizing often go hand in hand. The students’ task is to design a home that offers the comforts and functions of a larger home on a much smaller scale that meets the needs of older adult occupants. Built with sustainable materials, HBN will be easy to maintain, inexpensive to operate, fully ADA accessible and will be 90% more efficient than the average home in our community. To design such a home, NU engineering and design students participated in a 14-week discussion group last fall with members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), learning about what they need and want to have in their homes. The OLLI is part of a nationwide, university-based retirement learning community designed to keep seniors actively participating with other seniors in the pursuit of knowledge for pleasure. NU has a vibrant OLLI community both in Evanston and Chicago and welcomes inquiries and new participants to either campus.

Preliminary designs were adapted to satisfy the seniors’ requirements, which included enhanced lighting for tasks and reading, strategically-placed grab bars, lever handles rather than knobs, modular cabinets that can be lowered easily as reaching becomes more difficult, porches and outdoor spaces that encourage gardening and entertaining, and convertible areas to house caregivers or visiting family members.

This September, the house will be disassembled into four modules and will be shipped on flat-bed trucks to Denver, Col., for the five-week competition. “House by Northwestern” (HBN) will showcase advances in solar technology, energy storage, and residential construction and will be open for public tours when it is returned to Evanston following the competition.

Senior citizens are often wary of buzz-words such as “sustainability,” but OLLI members were very happy when they learned they could save money in the short and long-term by embracing new technologies.

“It was so interesting,” said OLLI member Carol Vanderwilt. “We came in to meet the students, and we had no idea how exciting this whole project really is. I hope I can live in a house designed this well for me as I continue aging and face the challenge of selling my large home and preparing to live my second act.”  

OLLI member Suzanne Farrand added, “At first I was worried I wouldn’t be able to use all of the new technology but I guess that’s the whole point – they’re making it so easy and really so great. Makes me want to stick around for a lot longer to see how all of this develops.”

OLLI members have continued to work with NU students to refine the interior design, collaborate through focus groups on progress and accompany students on trips to local retailers to choose the interior and exterior finishes for the house.

Anyone wishing to learn more about House by Northwestern may visit, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter. HBN would like to hear from anyone who wishes to learn more about sustainable housing or who has  made energy-efficiency upgrades for their homes:

To help the team travel to the competition in Denver (and ship their house) the team is gratefully accepting tax-deductible donations via or by check made out to Northwestern University and mailed to Maggie Waldron, HBN Director of Program Operations, Partnerships, & Communications, 2145 Sheridan Road L112, Evanston, IL 60208.