Nineteen university teams from around the world turned West Potomac Park on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., into a futuristic neighborhood last week at the U.S. Department of Energy's fifth biennial Solar Decathlon competition.
The only guidelines? Design, raise money for, build, and live in a self-sufficient house that runs on solar energy. Houses were judged on 10 criteria, including affordability, market appeal, comfort level, architecture, and, of course, energy efficiency. The wide-open guidelines led to a wide variety of houses. Students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the California Institute of Technology built something they call CHIP—a hyper-insulated, roomless structure that looks more like a tennis bubble than a house.
"We wanted to create what tomorrow looks like," says project engineer Fei Yang. "We want people to know that this isn't a house you stick a [solar] panel onto—it was designed from the ground up to be like this."
Other teams, such as second-place finisher Purdue University, went more traditional. Their white house looked like it could be on any midwestern street, complete with a one-car garage and an American flag on the porch. More entries fell somewhere in the middle—a team from Appalachian State University designed a "homestead" made up of a series of smaller buildings. But it was a Chesapeake Bay-inspired house made by a team from the University of Maryland that won the competition, narrowly edging Purdue.
The contest was close because the Washington area was rainy and overcast for most of the nine-day competition, giving teams little energy to work with. David Lee, communications director of the Appalachian State team, says it came down to energy management. "Five dollars of electricity is going to determine who wins this competition," he says. "It's a two-and-a-half year, $900,000 project and it comes down to $5 of electricity. It's a little mind-boggling and stressful."
Still, most houses generated enough electricity to be lived in for the week. Andrew Gong, electrical engineering lead for the CalTech team, says team engineers studied historical weather data for the past 50 years. They designed their house to compete in the worst historical weather conditions; their house barely outpaced that.
"If it was sunny, we'd be way over that target," he says.
Most teams had more than a hundred students working on the house, from engineers and architects to communications directors and business managers. Contest director Richard King says students who entered the competition are well-positioned to enter the job market.
"This group [of students] is going to get hired above others. To supplement their classroom education, they're doing this hands-on project," he says. "It's like starting a small business to form a team and put it all together."
Lee says that several of the Appalachian State team members had already received job offers. "The Solar Decathlon attracts a lot of industries," he says. "It's not just solar panel manufacturers that come here."
King says every two years the competition gets more fierce.
"They keep learning from each other. They're learning how to design it better over time. Each time, the bar gets raised and these houses are better and better," he says. "It's wonderful workforce development."
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