Pouring rain.  Muddy paths.  Beautiful sunsets.  Those are some of my strongest memories of the three days I spent in Washington D.C. judging the Solar Decathlon, the U.S. Department of Energy’s competition, challenging collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.  In the end, the outstanding the quality of the houses overcame all of the adverse and distracting circumstances.

There were 19 entries from the United States and four foreign countries – Canada, China, Belgium, and New Zealand.  Our work visiting each project both during the day and at night (in order to properly evaluate lighting design) was exhausting, but the enthusiasm and passion of the students made it all worthwhile.  Now that I have had a couple of weeks to absorb what I saw and experienced, some patterns begin to emerge.  I would summarize them this way.

In general, the entries demonstrated that a net zero energy house can be achieved using existing off-the-shelf technology and without extraordinary expense.  Compared to the first Solar Decathlon in 2002, there are so many more products available to achieve high levels of energy efficiency.  Just a few of them are triple pane windows, energy recovery ventilators, and affordable photovoltaic (PV) panels.

Since the first Solar Decathlon, there has been a reversal of the trend toward ever-larger average house size in the United States.  New houses are getting smaller in response to the economy and the Solar Decathlon is thus more relevant than ever before.  The size limit is 1,000 gross square feet so every entry demonstrated creative use of space or innovative ideas for multi-use space. 

There was a surprising variety of attitudes toward one important aspect of residential design – privacy, both visual and acoustic.  Contestants were allowed to choose a market segment so our jury did not penalize any project for lack of privacy or reward others for better privacy.  Perhaps it’s a reflection of the lifestyle of our college-aged contestants, that the concern was completely absent from a few projects. 

Apparently, there is a possibility that the Solar Decathlon won’t be held in Washington D.C. next time.  That would be a shame, as the location has the potential to draw large crowds.  On the other hand, perhaps it’s time for the Decathlon to move about the country, just as its namesake – the Olympics – moves about the world.  And why not Denver for the next one? 

By Paul Hutton