Sun Shines Brightly on Solar Decathlon Designs, Now Open to Public on West Coast

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Hear about the Solar Decathlon on the Reporter’s Notebook of this Which Way LA.

Since 2002, the Solar Decathlon has been a biennial competition hosted in Washington D.C. that has challenged collegiate teams with the task of designing affordable, sustainable and attractive solar-powered homes. But this year they parted with tradition and the event has come to the Golden State in Irvine’s Great Park. Founder Richard King says, “we wanted to take the event around to educate others around the country, its been 10 years in DC, those people get it now”, though some wonder if there’s a political dimension to the move. Some grumble that the Republican-lead House does not want to promote support for solar in the nation’s capital; others say that representatives did not like to seeing the Mall’s turf scuffed up by the temporary houses.

DnA’s Frances Anderton and Caroline Chamberlain went to the event before its unveiling and spoke with some of its contestants, who were rushing to complete their homes in time for the press unveiling today. Nineteen houses, created by college teams from as far afield as Austria and the Czech Republic, and as close to home as SCI-Arc/Caltech and USC, form a street under the open skies of the Great Park (above). Each house is approximately 1000 square feet and is designed to utilize net zero energy. Teams were each given $100,000 but also used extensive volunteer labor and donated materials to realize projects worth substantially more. Student designers deployed a combination of design features, including, of course, sheets of photovoltaic cells, but also passive energy-saving features like cross-ventilation, “green” walls.

A very interesting aspect of the designs this year was that in talking to the designers, one got the sense that the solar power features were a given — reflective of how far solar technology has come, though it still needs to garner many more users, says Richard King. Instead, designers emphasized the program and how it would serve the proposed users of their houses. USC, for example, is reconfiguring the “suburban” home for today’s changing family;’ the Czech Technical University designed theirs with elderly people in mind, and Team Capitol DC modeled theirs for disabled veterans.

The Solar Decathlon will open to the public Thursday October 3-Sunday October 6 and Thursday October 10-Sunday October 13. Great Park is also hosting a larger event in the spirit of efficiency involving cars, agriculture, home gardening and home appliances. The event is free to the public and attendees are encouraged to come to learn more ways to save energy, money and the planet.

Following are some of the designs, still under construction, and some team members’ comments on what is unique about each of their projects.


DALE  (Dynamic Augmented Living Environment)

Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institue of Technology

Daniel Lee told us about how California’s environment influenced their project, “Our house is really inspired by California, and we wanted to bring the outdoors, which is wonderful weather 360 days a year, into our home. So we designed a house that actually moves and opens up to allow California into your house. Not only that, our house with its movement is able to expand, tripling its square footage. So it’s a critique on the suburban McMansion that has prolifierated throughout Southern California.”




Justin King believes that their house is strengthened by its sponsorship from an architecture school: “What we try to do is make it more modern, more contemporary, make it very light. So if you look at the houses ours does stand out a lot. Just from the aerial photos you can tell that USC’s flux home is different from a typical floor plan. We’re a school led by architects, typically the other schools are led by engineers, so you have a design element you can add to make it a more appealing house overall.”


AIR House (Affordable, Innovative, Recyclable)

Czech Technical University

Martin Cenek from Czech Technical University told us about how the growing share of retirees inspired the project to have a social dimension as well: “Yes it is a social statement as well because this is an important social issue, not only in the Czech Republic and Europe, but also in the U.S. You have the part of the population that is 50+ is getting bigger and bigger, and they are also called the’ empty-nesters’ their children are gone and this could completely change their way of life.”


Harvest Home

The Catholic University of America, George Washington University, and American University

Amanda Stacey explained how the design of the houses’ shutters add to their house’s efficiency: “The green screens you see are for shading to prevent the solar radiation from coming into the house and heating the home. Those are really interesting because they work passively, where they are controlled by a tiny wire, a shape memory alloy.  When the alloy gets too hot it contracts and then a simple mechanic reaction closes the shades and prevents the sun from coming in.”


Delta T-90 House

Norwich University

Miranda Otto spoke on the challenge of making their house suitable for Vermont’s climate: “What makes our house special is that we’re from Vermont, so Delta T-90  actually meets a change in temperature in 90 degrees, so Vermont gets really cold, something you guys don’t have here. We have 16 inch thick walls that help keep the cold out. We want to create a tight house that will keep you warm.”



Vienna Institute of Technology

Sebastian from Team Austria said that one of the biggest challenges they’ve faced was dispelling stereotypes about the appearance and affordability of solar-powered homes:

“There are still some stereotypes about passive houses, and we wanted to break them down, :that solar houses don’t all have to look the same way and they don’t all have to fulfill lots of specific things. We also wanted to make it affordable because many people still think,okay this is another thing which I have to invest in, and when will it pay off? We wanted to answer all of these questions and once we return to Austria to display them to everyone and show them this is possible.”