Solar Decathlon | News

Student-Designed Homes Mix Sustainability with Function and Form

Twenty teams of college students will congregate in a park in Irvine, CA to set up solar-powered houses to compete in the bi-annual Solar Decathlon, put on by the United States Department of Energy. Students from the United States, Canada, and Europe have been working for the last two years planning, proposing, and executing their homes. The previous contest in 2011, held in Washington, D.C., declared the University of Maryland as winner.

A major goal of the competition is to educate people about sustainable and efficient living solutions that are affordable — at least by California standards. Teams vie to build homes with costs at or below $250,000. The homes will be on display for free so that the public can view them; the teams' as-built drawings and proposals will also be made available online for free download.

Another goal is to provide students who participate with training that could steer them into clean-energy jobs. The winning team will successfully balance energy production and consumption with an efficient, well-designed home.

Judges from the fields of architecture, communications, engineering, interior design, and marketing will evaluate the teams and their homes in 10 separate contests (thus the name Decathlon):

  • Architecture;
  • Market appeal;
  • Engineering;
  • Communications;
  • Affordability;
  • Comfort;
  • Hot water capacity;
  • Appliance operations;
  • Home entertainment; and
  • Energy balance.

For example, the home entertainment contest will require students to consider how to hold dinner parties for neighbors, keep inside and outside lights on for a specific period, operate a computer and TV for designated times, host a movie night with a home theater system, and simulate cooking by a kitchen appliance to "vaporize five pounds of water" within a given amount of time.

What may not be so energy efficient about the whole endeavor is the delivery of the houses onto the competition site. Each team must dismantle its entry from its home based, pack all of its components, and get them delivered to Irvine for reconstruction by Sept. 23. The most extreme example is the "AIR House" coming from Czech Technical University. The house was packed into seven 40-foot shipping containers and shuttled from Prague to Hamburg, Germany by train. From there it was placed on a cargo ship for transit through the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean, where it took a route northward to Los Angeles along the Mexico and California coasts.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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