With the creative design power of approximately 3,000 university students from 19 universities, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon is nothing short of awe-inspiring—presenting modern solar house designs that push the envelope for efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
Although the focus of the Solar Decathlon is designing functional, small houses—each house must be 600 to 1,000 square feet and must have working plumbing, electricity, and appliances—the key purpose is to provide an education for both the participating students and the general public on the benefits of clean-energy products and efficient house designs. As part of this education, the houses must be able to demonstrate the energy-efficient and renewable energy systems commercially available today.
Students and their advisors use their imaginations and research to incorporate innovations into their houses—at their campus, over the course of two years. The houses are then disassembled and shipped to the Solar Decathlon site. Once there, the students are given about eight days to reassemble the house.
During the nine-day competition, the houses are tested for various efficiency measures and scored by DOE staff and experts from associated industries. The teams also conduct public tours of their houses on the weekends that flank the main week of the Solar Decathlon.
My first exposure to the competition was at the second Solar Decathlon in 2005, when I had the opportunity to tour the houses as a member of the public. In 2013, for the first time, the Solar Decathlon left the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., for a sunny site in Irvine, California. And this year I took on a professional role, reviewing the solar-electric system designs and inspecting the electrical systems during the houses’ construction.
The Solar Decathlon includes 10 contests, each worth 100 points and scored either by a task completion, monitored performance, or a jury evaluation. (More in-depth coverage of each contest and the final results are available on the Solar Decathlon website; see Access.)
A jury of professional architects evaluates each team’s architectural approach, including architectural elements, overall functional design, lighting, inspiration, and documentation. The jury looked for elements such as scale and proportion of room features, connections between the indoor and outdoor living spaces, and linking of various house elements, for example, incorporating the PV array into a shade structure.
The AIR House from the Czech Republic’s Czech Technical University won the architecture competition with its clean-lined design. The house was built using primarily wood, including the load-bearing structure, wood-fiber thermal insulation, façade, and furniture. The spacious deck that is adjacent to the main entrance allows occupants to easily incorporate outdoor features into the living areas.
With a design similar to the box-in-a-box AIR House, the L-shaped Ecohabit house from Stevens Institute of Technology came in second place. A green roof covers a portion of the house, providing insulation while aiding in rainwater collection. The PV system uses solar shingles to help the array blend into the structure. These types of integrated features, along with an energy management system that monitors weather patterns and energy consumption habits, helped the team meet the design philosophy of a house that “cohabits” with its occupants.