Lead-up to the Solar Decathlon, Part 2

by Matthew Bushey, September 21, 2011

At the Solar Decathlon, which opens this Friday on the national mall, 19 teams of college and university students will be competing in 10 categories to see who can design, build and operate the most energy-efficient and beautifully designed solar-powered home.

What makes the Solar Decathlon so successful is that it is a competition between teams of college and university students.  The fact that it is a competition is a great motivator to maintain the level of energy needed for a project that takes about 2 years to develop and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fundraising. Once on site, the competition aspect adds a level of excitement that unfolds a little bit each day as points are awarded and a winner emerges.

That these houses are designed and built by college students is key to the role of the Solar Decathlon as a forward-looking research project on emerging green design and construction methods.  (It’s also a great way to engage the public to be able to connect with your alma mater, or to the school in your community.)
The Solar Decathlon is more than a showcase of current technologies… it is more than a home show.  After a long process of research, design, development, funding and construction, the competing teams often discover new solutions and develop new building methods for creating better, more comfortable and energy efficient homes.
Past Solar Decathlons have led to patents on new building products, and past Solar Decathlon teams have gone on to create architecture firms to continue their work that they started here.This year, Middlebury College is competing as the first Vermont school to enter the Solar Decathlon and the first ever liberal arts college to enter the competition alone.  From the looks of things, they are going to face some stiff competition.
There are a few teams that I will be especially interested in when I’m on the Mall this weekend. One of these is the University of Tennessee, which has designed a house they call “Living Light”.  As you can see in their video walkthrough, the Living Light has a double-glazed façade with an inner air space that is used to help heat and cool the interior.  The house’s PV modules are cylindrical, something I haven’t seen before, designed to absorb more of the sun’s rays.

What makes the event so interesting is the range of very different approaches that each team takes.  Some schools opt to fit up a conventional home with solar panels to show that these technologies are within reach for the average homeowner.  Other teams choose to push the envelope and think totally out-of-the-box, disregarding cost or “market appeal”, in favor of innovation and invention.
One team in this latter category this year is the joint effort of SciArc and CalTech.  Their house – CHIP – is forward-leaning, futuristic and puffy. (yes, puffy.)   In this house, you use an iPad app to control the home’s systems and an Xbox Kinect to turn off the lights.

Other schools competing this year include Purdue, the City College of New York, UMass Lowell, Ohio State, and Team Florida.  International teams are coming from New Zealand, Canada, Belgium, and China.

At past Solar Decathlons, students have built houses with soy-based SIPs, reclaimed shipping containers, and polycarbonate facades filled with translucent aerogel. Homes reduced their energy consumption with radiant cooling panels, phase-change materials, and ERVs with silica-gel rotary wheels. Landscapes were irrigated with greywater systems, facades were clad with copper sheets, and electric cars zipped around town on the surplus energy that was harvested from the sun.

In fact, the houses contained so many innovative features and materials that they were often criticized for being too expensive for the average homeowner. So this year, the list of 10 categories that comprise the Decathlon was modified slightly to include a new one: affordability.
In addition to displaying financial solvency, the students are judged on architectural design, engineering, and energy balance.  They have to boil water, run the dishwasher, and throw a movie night on the wide-screen TV.It’s all an effort to show that these are real houses ready for widespread consumption.

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