Solar Decathlon state of mind

Solar Decathlon

A brief tribute to this year’s inspirational and aspirational solar-powered sustainability competition

IRVINE, CA–The 19 homes in this year’s Solar Decathlon competition share many commonalities: the aspirational names, the recycled and other sustainable building materials, the active, passive and/or radiant heating and cooling schemes, serious smart-home control systems, and of course those ubiquitous variations on the residential-scale solar PV installation theme. But the individual designs veer in many directions, providing multiple shades across the green-hued living-experience spectrum.

The structures meant for desert conditions built by the University of Nevada Las Vegas and Arizona State/University of New Mexico teams provide a sharp contrast to their Canadian counterparts from Teams Alberta and Ontario, and both pairs bear little resemblance to (sub)urban-focused efforts from the University of Southern California and University of North Carolina at Charlotte. While some projects rate high on the conceptual scale–like the DALE entry from Southern California Institute of Architecture/California Institute of Technology and its innovative dual-modules-on-rails system–the neo-traditional, severe weather-resistant Phoenix House offering from the Kentucky/Indiana team has a comfortable interior feel that would not be out of place on the current market. The placement of distinct designs next to or across from one another along the village promenade is a design geek’s delight.

Most of the projects have at least one unique feature or characteristic. The Stephens Institute of Technology’s Ecohabit employs Dow’s CIGS thin-film PV-based Powerhouse solar shingles instead of a standard flat-plate PV array, and Missouri University of Science and Technology’s Chameleon House features tenK Solar’s reflector-enhanced flat-roof c-Si system. Bamboo pervades Santa Clara University’s Radiant House, while Team Capitol DC’s Harvest Home has been customized to accommodate wounded military veterans.

When I walked through the Decathlon village, some teams were in the midst of getting all of their 28 inspection reports signed off, and one squad from West Virginia University (whose site was one of the first you see on entering the promenade) was still in active construction mode. I was standing in the “Kentuckiana” house when the students and advisors cheered after successfully completing their 28th inspection. My fellow Trojans of USC noted that their fluxHome was among the first three or four domiciles to pass the complete inspection regimen, and my Santa Clara tour guide bragged of being the first team to lift and place a solar module on the opening day of the build out. Many teams either finished a few minutes before or after the previous day’s noon deadline for the close of construction.

The 10-part competition started in earnest Wednesday (Oct. 3), as the first waves of curious citizens descended on the Orange County Great Park after the official opening ceremony. At 11am PDT, the five monitoring-based contests began, with measurements taken and data processed in the following silos: indoor temperature/humidity; hot water draws; refrigerator and freezer temperatures/dishwashing and clothes washing utilization; cooking/lighting/dining/computer/home theater performance; and electricity produced (hello, solar!) and consumed. Next Monday (Oct. 7), the five juried contests kick off, as the experts visit each team house to evaluate the architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, and affordability categories. The overall winners will be announced on Saturday morning, Oct. 12.

Since the Curator won’t be able to file regular reports from the site, I recommend checking out DOE’s, where, despite the government shutdown, the communications team is doing a bang-up job of posting blogs and updates via the site and working their social media assets on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and other platforms.

I hope to get down to the Solar Decathlon village one more time. There were many houses I didn’t tour and lots of students I would like to have talked with during my few hours there. You gotta love all that positive energy focused on making our planet a better place.