University of Houston students spent much of the fall semester thinking about the future of housing, working with plans to capture the power of Houston’s sun and reuse its abundant rainfall.

Their work for the Energy Efficiency Innovation Challenge, an ambitious project to rethink energy efficiency and affordable housing, could ultimately change the face of the Third Ward.

The competition, sponsored by Direct Energy and UH Energy, asked teams of students to design an 800-square-foot, two-bedroom house that can be built for $80,000 or less, with monthly utility bills under $25.

“When this was first announced, people thought it was not possible,” said Radha Radhakrishnan, joint chief energy officer at UH. “All the teams came in with less than $15 (in energy bills).”

The task required technical knowledge, creativity and aesthetic sensibilities to address one of society’s most pressing problems. All of the teams used solar panels to produce electricity and rainwater catchment systems to supplement the public water system.

About 30 students participated, representing the UH colleges of architecture, engineering, technology, business, law and mathematics and natural sciences.

First place — and a $6,000 prize — went to a team that considered the history and culture of the neighborhood as it produced its entry, dubbed Envirow House. Team members include Giovanni Peña, a graduate architecture student, and undergraduates Jessica Hedge, industrial design, Inbisat Zahara, finance and supply chain management, and Travis Franks, mechanical engineering.

The second and third place teams received $4,500 and $3,000 respectively.

But the real reward may come later, as some of the winning designs are built in the neighborhoods around UH. Leaders with the University and Direct Energy are working to raise money and find available land for the construction.

The winning team said it drew inspiration for its project — an 817-square-foot home wrapped in corrugated metal, the sloping roof topped by solar panels — from Project Row Houses, which started in 1993 to spur community action through the arts and through African-American culture.

“We wanted to make sure people would keep their culture,” Zahara said.

Badar Khan, CEO of Direct Energy, said the competition was a natural outgrowth of the company’s belief in a more energy-efficient future.

“We want you to buy less of what we sell,” he said. “We waste a tremendous amount of energy in our homes.”

Direct Energy helped design the competition to make sure students address real-world challenges, he said. “Direct Energy goes beyond believing in a more energy efficient future. We’re investing in the people who are going to help build it.”

Many students were drawn to the project by the opportunity to be part of that future.

“When people think about nice architecture, they think about museums, stadiums, not inexpensive housing,” Peña said. “But design elements can be used there, too.”

The $25 monthly energy bill both set the project apart and made it difficult. Solar panels can cut energy costs, for example, but substantially increase the upfront cost.

Hitting the energy cost milestone was “doable, but hard,” Hedge said. Her team used solar panels — and calculated the potential savings if a utility company agreed to buy energy generated but not needed — but cut costs elsewhere.

Radhakrishnan said the competition fits in with the University’s goal of preparing students to address the nation’s future energy needs.

“It is about challenging them to think about how important energy efficiency is,” he said. “Energy forecasts predict that over the next 30 years, there will be a huge gap between global energy demand and supply.”