Solar Decathlon – Design, Energy Efficiency, Inspiration

Nov 26, 2011 | 2011 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Going Green

by Deborah Harter Williams

In October, the U.S. Department of Energy sponsored its fifth Solar Decathlon. This year’s competition featured 19 colleges from five countries and four continents. The challenge: design, build and operate the most cost effective, energy efficient and attractive solar powered house. Ten contests over ten days pushed the teams to demonstrate each house’s performance, livability and affordability. To do this they had to put their designs through their paces by performing such modern living tasks as cooking, dishwashing and laundry. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

What charmed me was the way they picked a theme and name for their houses. They came up with designs from cozy to crazy, while meeting a target of a specific need and reflecting a design style that matched the origin of the students. For example, the Purdue University entry, “INHouse” or Indiana House, looks like it could be set down in any Midwest neighborhood. It has a grey paneled exterior, red door and porch swing. But, it also features a bio-wall for natural air purification – a plant wall made from rhododendrons. Inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idea of “Self Reliance,” the Middlebury (Vermont) team built a house with a New England feel that they called “traditional and comfortable while also challenging tradition.” Their greenhouse wall was one of the “livable” features making a family space where you can grow, prepare and eat food.

The New Zealand team called their structure “First Light” since New Zealanders are the first to see the sun each day. This house reflects the Kiwi lifestyle with indoor/outdoor landscaping and practical features such as a hydraulic drying cupboard instead of clothes dryer. Meanwhile, Illinois’ RE_Home targets another kind of problem. It is a Rapid Response house, for areas hit by tornadoes or other natural disasters. Prefab and shippable, with a flexible floor plan, it can go up in six hours with two modules that will fit on a single trailer. For all it’s high tech design, it has prairie style and charm, not a made of necessity feel.

Solar Decathlon homes

China’s Tongji University created an unusual Y-shaped structure from shipping containers. It featured a moveable wall rather than fixed partitions to let occupants actually change the internal shape of the space. It uses heat recovery from the solar thermal collector for hot water and floor heating and has a natural ventilation tunnel in the middle of the house to regulate air distribution without energy consumption. The “Y Container” House is designed for young couples in Shanghai who can’t usually afford independent housing.

The most unusual house was probably the joint entry from SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute for Architecture) and CALTECH. They called their radical entry “CHIP” which stands for Compact Hyper Insulated Prototype. This “puffy house” wears its insulation on the outside and comes with internal décor tat is equally creative and daring.

The University of Maryland team took first place with a structure they called “Watershed House” – a natural theme for students from the Chesapeake Bay watershed area. They featured extensive use of water including a rooftop garden and indoor waterfall. The liquid desiccant waterfall is made from lithium chloride, which acts as a dehumidifier.

The Solar Decathlon was first held in 2002 and has been repeated biennially since 2005. As of 2010, seventy-two houses have been created. Twenty-four exist on university campuses, seventeen are private residences, seven are used for businesses and meeting, while fifteen host educational exhibits which demonstrate energy efficiency. All are an inspiration for future designs. Many can be visited.

To learn more about these houses and see videos and photos here are some links: story

Where the houses are now

YouTube videos of all the entries

Solar Decathlon home page

Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.

1 Comment

  1. I agree, but people need to understand that adding Solar to their house is an purchase that will raise the actual valuation of their property if / when they choose to sell. With the environment the way it is going we are unable to overlook any item that provides totally free power at no cost to both the consumer and more notably the environment!


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