This year Washington, DC hosted the Solar Decathlon for the fifth time since its inaugural competition in 2002. Since then, the competition has been held every two years, allowing students two years to take their proposed ideas and turn them into reality. Twenty college teams compete at the Solar Decathlon where have the opportunity to win several different contests including Most Affordable, Best Architecture, Best Engineering, and Best Communications. Teams ultimately compete for the top honor of winning the solar decathlon, which is determined by the team with the most overall points determined by diverse criteria. There is also the coveted People’s Choice Awards, which adds an additional layer of fun and really makes the students shine when they are giving the public tours.
I originally planned to hit the whole competition in a day but gave myself the backup day of Sunday just in case I could not get to it all. I am so glad I did. Saturday was a mad house and the lines were quite long, so after about two hours I only saw about four houses and I was starving (the venue ran out of food) so I decided to return the next day.
I am so glad I came back. I was determined to see all of the nineteen homes, an endeavor that took me about six hours over the two days. After six hours and two days the houses start to blur in your mind and it is hard to remember which awesome detail or technology went with which house. After a bit of review thanks to the handy dandy information the teams handed out, my people’s choice award went to Maryland.
Rather than basing my choice on the engineering, I to admit that I picked my favorites based on which ones I could see myself moving into the next day. Maryland won hands down for my People’s Choice Award vote, mainly because I am from Maryland and have a serious affection for anything that promotes the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Maryland’s house, dubbed Watershed, not only produces all of its energy but also has an impressive water management design complete with a green roof. Instead of all the water going down the drain and eventually to the sewers, the greywater (wastewater that does not contain biosolids such as feces or food) gets diverted to the greywater treatment wetlands where the plants break down the nutrients and remove pathogens allowing the now clean water to be used for plants elsewhere around the house. There are countless reasons why I love this house, there are so many cool features such as their interior design (complete with the taco bed/table) and amazing engineering features such as the Liquid Desiccant Waterfall system which absorbs humidity from the air. I highly suggest checking out 2011.solarteam.org to check out all the amazing features of Watershed.
There are several design features I would like to highlight briefly for the other homes. I really enjoyed the small spaces and was inspired by how comfortable these small houses were. I was especially fascinated by the ways teams hid the beds (Murphy beds, taco bed/table/, giant drawer). I loved Middlebury’s house and was very impressed since they do not have a school of architecture. All of their furniture was made from locally harvested Vermont wood or reused pieces such as a really cool old trunk that they were using as a coffee table. One of my favorite highlights from this house was the idea of having a greenhouse in your kitchen, so if you needed basil, for example, you could just turn around and pick some and throw it into your simmering pot. Appalachian State, the Solar Homestead, was stunning as well. It seemed to have the most space and felt very homey. My favorite part was the kitchen/living room area due to their clever way to cover up the kitchen. If you have guests over for movie night, just cover it up with a movie screen!
New Zealand’s house was drop dead gorgeous. The house is called First Light because New Zealand is the first country to greet the new day sun. One of my favorite features of this house is the use of recycled sheep’s wool (an abundant renewable resource for New Zealand) as insulation. Tidewater Virginia’s Unit 6, was super fun and well decorated. I loved the sliding bookcase that doubled as a bedroom door, and the students played it up pretending there was a special book you had to pull to reveal the secret chamber. Interestingly, Tennessee’s team used Solyndra’s solar tubes that collect light from every angel instead of the sun shinning directly onto a panel, pretty sweet technology, too bad Solyndra is now in the headlines for a scandal.
After spending two days at the Solar Decathlon, I was sad to leave – there was still so much left to learn! I was so jealous of these students, and it made me miss school terribly. By the way, I went to Arizona State University, and I was shocked that there was not one school represented from the sunny dessert areas such as Arizona or New Mexico. I am just going to cross my fingers that Arizona State will be at the next Solar Decathlon; I know I will be, I would not miss it for the world.