Friday, October 30, 2009

Solar Decathlon, part Two

On Sunday, October 18 I was finally able to visit the Solar Decathlon on the Mall in Washington. Unfortunately it was the last day to tour the houses and I only had a brief period of time before I needed to get to work, so touring the Decathlon turned in to a mini-decathlon for Dr. Jay and I as we ran and puddle- jumped through the Mall trying to take it all in and photograph in about an hour and a half. Thank goodness the rain had finally subsided.

074 Note the grey, grey day!

That was one of the reasons I hadn’t yet been out to see the competition- the week of October 12-17 was packed with rain and cold. My heart goes out to those college students and professors that had worked so hard for two years on their houses and had to construct them on the Mall during high-force winds and then compete in cold rain. The Sunday morning we attended, it actually stopped raining just as we arrived, which is probably why there was such a crowd. There were long lines to get in to some of the houses (Team Germany, for one) so I’ll have to give you my thoughts on the houses that I actually did get to tour: University of Louisiana at Lafayette (U-La-La as my Louisiana friends would say), The University of Arizona, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, Team California, Virginia Tech and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I could have stayed ALL DAY LONG and probably still not seen as much as I wanted to, so I was definitely disappointed that I hadn’t made a point to go earlier in the week (thanks, weather!). Dr. Jay and I agreed it was truly inspiring to see all these well-designed little houses, and I surely will not do justice to all the finer-nuances of the designs, but here’s my take on the Solar Decathlon 2009.

First, no more suspense. The results:


Team Germany, which actually also won the last competition in 2007, had a pretty cool and very European-looking house. As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t get a chance to tour it because the line was so long, but it is designed to produce twice as much energy as it would need to consume. It’s two stories (which I couldn’t tell from the exterior!) and is covered with single-crystal silicon solar panels on the roof and 250 thin-film solar panels on all four sides.


I was sorry to not be able to see it for myself, but frankly I was so blown away by some of the other houses I don’t know if I would have properly appreciated it. My favorite house by far (of the ones I saw, of course, and I’ll quit qualifying myself now) was Team California’s Refract House. Most of the teams choose a name for their houses. When I participated in the Decathlon in 2002, our house (UVA) was called the Trojan Goat because of the concept that it could unfold and change and become something unexpected like the Trojan Horse but it was meant to be able to adapt to any situation like a goat. Moving on, I’m not entirely sure why Team California (which is made up of students and faculty from Santa Clara University and the California College of the Arts) decided to name their house the Refract House other than that’s kind of a cool name, but I thought the house itself was both very California and very livable. I just loved it.


111 That light-fixture is made from plastic straws!



Aren’t these modern-ified versions of Adirondack chairs great?

They really made the most of both the interior and the exterior space, and while they have it set up so that there is an outdoor living room complete with couches, I was amazed by how large they made the 800 square-foot interior seem. They had by far the largest bathroom that I saw. I thought the two little covered porches were a very clever way to maximize space and light. To me, this was the most wholistic design and the house I would most want to live in.


114 115

I just checked the Solar Decathlon website and Team California actually placed First in the Architecture competition- woo hoo! They placed 3rd overall, but there are 9 other categories and I bet Team Germany racked up a lot of points in the energy-based categories. Okay, I’ll quit gushing. I also really liked the U-La-La’s house, which won the People’s Choice Award (you could vote via text message this year… so many changes since 2002) and won the Market Viability category of the Decathlon.077

I could see why this house appealed to a lot of different types of people. Can you tell in this photo below that it has these cool fold-up glass doors:


It also had a beautiful interior, but getting good photographs of them was difficult since the houses are fairly small and there are usually other people touring them. Here’s a nice shot of their bathroom tile though:


I thought this detail was nice also. I’d love one of these planter walls, wouldn’t you?


Another house I liked quite a bit was The University of Arizona’s. Dr. Jay said it looked like something from Mad Max but I was mesmerized by it:

087 085 088 They had a very cool pivot door. It was also a chalkboard!

091Doesn’t it look futuristic? This is their water wall, which acts a thermal mass to prevent those high Arizona temps from heating up the house during the day. At night, when the outside temperature cools down, the water wall slowly releases the heat that has built up all day.


Dr. Jay thought the bathroom was a little too minimalistic and exposed for his taste, but there was a screen wall they just didn’t have in place to make the tours easier.


And check out this Jetsons-esque stovetop:


We toured Virginia Tech’s house, and although it did have a very cool (and very expensive) fabricated metal screen wall:

103 it just didn’t speak to me like some of the other houses did. 102

Here are a few more photos of the various houses I didn’t get a chance to enter:

104 105



We had a blast during the short visit to the Solar Decathlon. I was incredibly impressed by how the competition has progressed and the ingenuity of these teams. Most of all, I loved seeing all the other people touring the houses in awe of the designs as well. I really think this competition has helped to make an impact on the public’s perception of green design. The new American house doesn’t have to look like the traditional house to provide all the comforts of home.

Next time, I’ll definitely give the Solar Decathlon an entire day.


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