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How The Solar Decathlon Was Won

The Solar Decathlon's mission, at its core, is to showcase one simple fact: that homes can be built today that are innovatively efficient from energy to water usage, in a variety of appealing and generally affordable designs. Judging by our own eyes, and the eyes of this year's judges and thousands of visitors over two weeks in CA, Irvine, this year's Solar Decathlon again accomplished its mission.

This year's 19 competing teams and their houses were as unique as their design inspirations, from the Canadian north to the southwestern deserts to the urban East Coast. We heard a lot of common themes: lots of radiant heating application, lots of reclaimed materials from wood accents to steel infrastructure, to living roofs and gardens and layouts that make these houses fit wherever they're designed to go. And so it's probably no surprise that in the end, the differences between the final scores, which have been narrowing since the first Solar Decathlon in 2002, were downright infinitesimal this year: six teams were within a 26-point spread, with fewer than five points separating the winner and second-place, and less than seven from first to third.

The following pages list who won in each category, and the overall winner — but of course all of this year's participants deserve praise for bringing their visions of energy-efficient homes to reality and inspiring us:

  • Arizona State University and University of New Mexico
  • Czech Republic: Czech Technical University
  • Kentucky/Indiana: University of Louisville, Ball State University and University of Kentucky
  • Middlebury College
  • Missouri University of Science and Technology
  • Norwich University
  • Santa Clara University
  • Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology
  • Stanford University
  • Stevens Institute of Technology
  • Team Alberta: University of Calgary
  • Team Austria: Vienna University of Technology
  • Team Capitol DC: The Catholic University of America, George Washington University, and American University
  • Team Ontario: Queen's University, Carleton University, and Algonquin College
  • Team Texas: University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College
  • Tidewater Virginia: Hampton University and Old Dominion University
  • University of Nevada Las Vegas
  • University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • University of Southern California
  • West Virginia University


Design and Build: Winners in Architecture, Engineering

Winner, Architecture: Czech Republic

Criteria for the Architecture category were scale and proportion of all the house's elements, elements, holistic design, integration and efficiency of light, and their design inspiration. The Czech Republic edged out Stevens by two points to take the top spot in architecture, followed by USC in third place.


Winner, Engineering: Ontario

Homes judged for their engineering prowess had five criteria: functionality (did energy and HVAC systems work), efficiency (how much would it save in a year), innovation (are the approaches unique, with market potential), and reliability (how long will they operate and requiring how much maintenance). Team Ontario came away as best in engineering, followed by the Czech Republic in second place, and a three-way tie for third between Austria, UNCC, and UNLV.



Making a House a Home: Winners in Market Appeal, Affordability, Communications

Winner, Market Appeal: UNLV

This category examines how well each team did in designing and executing their homes for their target market and audience, which ranged from the northern Canadian woods to the Mojave desert. Key questions: Was the home functional and comfortable, does it have curb appeal and craftsmanship, and could it be easily adopted and built? This year UNLV took home top prize for "market appeal," followed by Team Austria, and a third-place tie between the Czech and Stanford teams.


Winner, Affordability: Three-way tie

Three schools managed to get their homes' construction costs below the $250,000 threshold as judged on-site by a professional estimator: Stanford, Norwich, and Kentucky/Indiana. (Most schools weren't far from that benchmark, though.) Norwich didn't get extra credit for its super-affordable house that came in at roughly $168,000 — its design emphasized affordability for families making 20 percent below the median income in their home state of Vermont.


Winner, Communications: Austria

This juried contest looked not at the houses themselves but the teams' efforts at getting the word out: Web site content, audiovisual presentation, on-site graphics and displays, and how they got their message across to audiences both online and in line at the event. Team Austria took home the best score for communications, followed by UNLV and Middlebury.



How They Performed: Winners in Comfort Zones, Hot Water, Appliances, Home Entertainment, Energy Balance

Winner, Comfort Zone: Santa Clara

In one of five contests graded over the entire event, teams' houses had to show steady, comfortable temperature and humidity levels, between 71-76°F and less than 60 percent humidity. Santa Clara squeaked by with top marks in comfort, edging out Team Capitol DC and the Czech Republic. Interestingly, Santa Clara's previous two Decathlon homes had emphasized first a more traditional style, and then a sleeker architectural model; this year they consciously attempted to strike a balance.


Winner, Hot Water: Six-way tie

The criteria for the Hot Water contest was to complete several "hot water draws," i.e. delivering 15 gallons of 110°F hot water in 10 minutes or less. Six teams accomplished that: Stevens, Austria, Middlebury, UNLV, Alberta, and Ontario. All teams managed to pull at least seven of those draws successfully.


Winner, Appliances: USC

Here contestants were judged on how their houses reflected real-world use of an average U.S. family: refrigerating and freezing food in specified temperature ranges, washing and drying laundry, and running the dishwasher. This category was extremely close — less than two points separated first from eleventh places. In the end USC squeaked out the Capitol DC and Stanford teams.


Winner, Home Entertainment: Santa Clara

For this contest the DOE asks: Do these houses have what it takes to be a home? To find out, team members had to host each other for dinner parties, judged on the quality of their meals, ambiance, keeping TVs and computers on, even a movie night. They also had to prove they could boil down 5 lbs of water in a specific time frame. This was another extremely close competition (less than one point separating first from eighth), and another win for Santa Clara. It was also a top-three finish for both Team Capitol DC and Middlebury.

As part of the Solar Decathlon rules, schools had to file their menus and recipes along with all the other house project documentation. We're not talking typicaly undergrad budget-fare either: how about some homemade hummus or roasted rabbit? Visit the individual team pages to whet your appetite.


Winner, Energy Balance: Everyone

The Solar Decathlon, at its essence, is really one question: how can a unique home maximize its energy efficiency? In this contest teams' houses had to produce at least as much energy as they needed by balancing production (solar PV, solar hot water) and consumption (efficiency). Every single team in this year's competition achieved top marks for the Energy Balance contest. Team Austria actually ended with a net of 217 kWh, Missouri S&T finished with a 177 kWh bonus, and Team AZ State/UNM and Team Alberta each had about an extra 120 kWh.



Add 'Em Up: Overall Winner and People's Choice

Winner, People's Choice: UNCC

The UrbanEden house from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte had some unique features in its geopolymer concrete and movable PV array. But what spoke to the public who voted in this category were the home's softer touches, from a bright interior with wood paneling and cabinets, to ash flooring and a patio with gardens. "UrbanEden is a house people can imagine themselves living in," noted the DOE.


Overall Winner: Team Austria

Team Austria's Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation (LISI) from the Vienna U. of Technology is an atrium-style house typical for Austria, envisioned as a sustainable urban cottage or a contemporary chalet for mountain and lake resorts. The open space has fully retractable glass walls; note the eye-catching exterior curtain facade, made from a plastic-feel textile material. It's also made almost entirely out of wood, down to the kitchen chairs molded with chipped bark. Energy is supplied by a 8.6-kW, 35-panel rooftop PV system. Kudos also go out to Team UNLV which finished in second place, followed by the Czech team, Stevens, and Stanford rounding out the top five.


Lead image: Silhouette on fiery orange background, via Shutterstock

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