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From Dusk to New Dawn: How the Solar Decathlon Can Be Saved

With the close of the seventh Solar Decathlon competition last month in Irvine, California, we couldn't help but reflect on our own experience in the 2013 competition as leaders of Start.Home - Stanford University's first entry into the US Department of Energy (DOE)'s biennial net-zero energy home competition which ultimately placed fifth. With the advantage of two years of hindsight, we can now clearly see that our experience in the Decathlon has had incredible educational value to us, not only as students of architecture and engineering, but also as leaders and future professionals in interdisciplinary projects.

However, echoing recent sentiments on ArchDaily, we feel it is unclear whether the Solar Decathlon still has any of the other values it set out to have; namely to showcase cutting-edge renewable and sustainable technology in residential building design to industry and the public. In fact, as the competition looks ahead with uncertain governance and sponsorship, without some serious reexamination of its fundamental goals the Solar Decathlon may be facing its own setting sun. How did the Solar Decathlon reach its current state of irrelevance? More importantly, how should it innovate to see a new dawn in the coming years?

Stevens' Hurricane-Resilient SU+RE House Wins Solar Decathlon 2015

A student-led team from Stevens Institute of Technology (SIT) in New Jersey has won the 2015 Solar Decathlon with a “Coastal Home of the Future" - the SU+RE House. Affordable, net-zero, and entirely solar-powered, the home was inspired by the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. It hopes to serve as a prototype for coastal homes.

"SU+RE HOUSE powers itself with clean solar power, and uses 90 percent less energy than its conventional cousins," says the winning team. "In the aftermath of a storm, SU+RE HOUSE can become a hub of emergency power for surrounding neighborhoods."

Is the Solar Decathlon Still Relevant?

Is the Solar Decathlon Still Relevant? The short answer is “yes,” but probably not for the reasons the United States Department of Energy intended.

The Solar Decathlon, currently underway at Orange County Great Park, in Irvine, California, “challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.” The overall goal of the competition is to demonstrate the viability of solar power to the public, while also providing the participating students with hands-on design, engineering, and construction experience. When the first Solar Decathlon took place in 2002, the viability of solar power was anything but certain, and the venue on the National Mall in Washington DC gave credence to the pursuit of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.

ShelteR3 by Crowder College and Drury University. Image © Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon The GRoW Home by University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. Image © Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon DURAhome by New York City College of Technology. Image © Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Alf House by State University of New York at Alfred College of Technology and Alfred University. Image © Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Techstyle Haus: An 800 Square Foot Fabric House That Uses 90% Less Energy

The Rhode Island School Of Design, Brown University and the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt, Germany collaborated on a passive "fabric" house for the 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe (which just wrapped up this month - see the winners here). In the following article, originally published on Metropolis MagazineMartin Pedersen reviews the remarkable house.

This summer’s 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe is well underway in France, where a solar-powered village of twenty sustainable homes designed and built by college students from all over the country, has emerged on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles. Students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Brown University, and the University of Applied Sciences Erfurt, Germany, have teamed up for Techstyle Haus, an 800-square-foot house that’s not only a model of energy efficiency but an elegant piece of design as well.  

20 Teams to Compete in 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon

The U.S. Department of Energy has selected 20 collegiate teams to participate in the 2015 Solar Decathlon at Irvine, California’s Orange County Great Park. The eight returning teams will compete against 12 new teams, with partners from four international schools, to build “solar-powered, highly energy-efficient houses that combine affordability, innovation, and design excellence” within the allotted two-year period. View the full list of competitors, after the break. 

Solar Decathlon 2013: SCI-Arc & Caltech Create California-style, Zero Net Energy Bungalow

DALE, short for Dynamic Augmented Living Environment, is this year's U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon entry for the SCI-Arc/Caltech team. Made of two movable, prefabricated modules that open to allow the outdoors in, DALE celebrates the active California lifestyle through its dynamic architecture.

DALE learns from two classic California precedents: the super-sized suburban tract home and the compact, sufficient bungalow; amending one and expanding on the other to become a new Southern California typology. At 600 square feet, it is a micro house with an unprecedented flexible interior that results in the program of a house three times the size.

Solar Decathlon 2013: UNC Charlotte Wins "People's Choice"

The people have spoken: UNC Charlotte’s 2013 Solar Decathlon entry, UrbanEden has won the “People’s Choice Award.” Designed as an urban infill project for a couple in Charlotte, North Carolina, the net-zero solar-powered home defines itself by establishing a strong indoor and outdoor connection in the middle of the city. By enclosing the back deck with a seven-foot tall vertical garden and integrating a high-performance glass wall along the home’s south side, dwellers are presented with the unlikely option of privately enjoying the outdoors within a dense urban context. 

Solar Decathlon 2013: Stanford University Places Fifth Overall, Ties First in Affordability

Stanford University's Start.Home has won fifth place overall and tied for first place in affordability in the 2013 Solar Decathlon. Read the team’s description to learn more:

For the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2013, Stanford University designed the Start.Home to provide energy efficiency at the push of a button to a new generation of environmentally conscious occupants. With modular architecture and advanced controls to optimize each component, the house aims to spark a revolution by lowering the entry barrier for an ultra-efficient house and making sustainability trendy, social, and affordable.

Solar Decathlon 2013: Stevens Institute of Technology Places Second in Architecture, Fourth Overall

Courtesy of  Jason Flakes / U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon
Courtesy of Jason Flakes / U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

From the architect. This "L-shaped" energy smart house by the Stevens Institute of Technology (SIT), dubbed Ecohabit, won second place in the architecture category and fourth overall in this year's Solar Decathlon competition. The L-concept divides the house into two modules, "wet" and "dry". Read the team's description to learn why:

Solar Decathlon 2013: Czech Technical University Wins Architecture Contest, Places Third Overall

Lauded for incorporating warm, natural wood finishes to create a “comfortable place to dwell and reenergize,” the jury of the 2013 Solar Decathlon has named Czech Technical University as winner of the competition’s “Architecture Contest,” placing them third overall. 

Based on a “house within a house” concept and inspired by the Czech tradition of spending weekends in the country, the “AIR House” features a flexible, open interior that is protected by an intelligent second skin - a “solar wooden canopy” that generates energy and provides hot water via photovoltaic and solar-thermal panels. Read for the team’s project description. 

Solar Decathlon 2013: Team Las Vegas Places Second, Wins “Market Appeal”

© Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon
© Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

From the architect. Placing second overall, just a few points behind the winning 2013 Solar Decathlon team, students from the University of Nevada Las Vegas (Team Las Vegas) have won the “Market Appeal” contest at the Department of Energy’s (DOE) sixth solar-home competition. Known as “DesertSol”, the project was lauded for its “livability, marketability and constructability” as well as its “appeal within the housing market of the target client chosen by team.” It is designed to be a self-reliant, energy-efficient second home for upper-middle income Americans who pursue active lifestyles in the sparsely populated Mojave Desert. Read on for the team’s project description. 

Solar Decathlon 2013: Team Austria Wins Top Honors

A team of Austrian students from Vienna University of Technology (Team Austria) has won top honors for “designing, building, and operating the most cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive solar-powered house” at the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Decathlon. The net-positive home, known as “LISI – Living inspired by sustainable innovation,” prides itself for being a simple, smart house that is capable of adapting to a variety of lifestyles and climate zones.

Prior to being crowned as winner, LISI competed against eighteen other student-built, solar-powered homes over the course of ten days in Irvine, California. This was the first time an Austrian university has participated in the U.S. Solar Decathlon. Learn more about the winning design by reading the team’s project description after the break.

© Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon ©  LISI - Solar Decathlon Team Austria © Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon © Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

The Indicator: Why the Solar Decathlon Should Enter the Real World

I don’t mean to poo poo the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon project, but the more I hear about it the more I wonder if this isn’t an indication of just how far behind the United States is in terms of energy policy and the design of smart environments. Are we really that far behind that we need a program like this to prove this stuff really works? Are people still disbelieving? Do they really need demonstration homes to show how photovoltaics produce electricity or how sustainable principles can be applied to architecture? I suppose it makes sense in a country that still obsesses about the Case Study Houses and has debates about climate change. 

The purpose of the Solar Decathlon is primarily to educate the public on high-performance building practices. Since 2002 when the DOE held the first one, it’s been putting “green” building in front of people who otherwise would not get to experience it—or, in reality, a self-selecting population of people who are probably already into such things. 

Solar Decathlon 2013

Looking for something to do this week? If you are in the greater Los Angeles area, come check out the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) sixth Solar Decathlon at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine. Currently on view through October 13, this (free!) event showcases nineteen student-built, solar-powered homes that claim to be exemplars of sustainable housing. After being closely monitored by the DOE throughout the length of the competition, one team will be crowned as winner for successfully blending affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

Catch a glimpse of each project, ranked in order of the current standings, after the break. 

HALO: Swedish Students' Solar Decathlon Entry

Designed and built by 25 students from Chalmers University in Sweden, HALO is a socially sustainable home for four students, running on renewable energy from the sun. HALO was designed using one underlying concept: shared space is double space.  

Courtesy of Team Sweden Courtesy of Team Sweden Courtesy of Team Sweden Courtesy of Team Sweden

UOW Australia Wins the 2013 Solar Decathlon China

Team UOW from the University of Wollongong in Australia has been awarded first place at the 2013 Solar Decathlon China, taking top honors for its net-zero, water-conserving design. Selected from 22 teams and 35 universities, Team UOW’s winning entry - the Illawarra Flame House - was the first retrofitted house ever to be submitted in decathlon history.

First Israeli Team to Compete in The Solar Decathlon

The Solar Decathlon, also called the “Olympics of Sustainable Architecture,” is a design competition that takes place biennially and challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are Net Zero Energy Buildings and are affordable, energy-efficient and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends cost-effectiveness, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

Summer of 2013 will be the first year that a team from Israel will participate in this worldwide competition. Their hope was to develop and display a method of planning and design in which buildings could better respond to change, with the potential to be deconstructed, taken apart, modified and recycled. Values of environment, community, society and Israeli culture are all intertwined in a design that aims to raise awareness of these four elements and better incorporate them into Israeli architecture.

Read on for Team Israel's Decathlon design.

Budapest Students Design Sustainable House for Indoor and Outdoor Living

It may look unassuming, but this sleek black box is the culmination of a two-year long collaboration of more than 50 students from 7 different faculties of the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. Initially envisioned by two architecture students and built for the European Solar Decathlon 2012 in Madrid, the goal of Odooproject was to encourage a new sustainable life by designing a house where as much time as possible can be spent outdoors.

More information about Odooproject after the break...

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