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A quick cheat sheet to Solar Decathlon stars

October 5th, 2009 · 10 Comments

Simply put, it is hard to exaggerate the reasons for enthusiasm about the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. This is a truly Energy COOL ten day period in DC, with literally 100s (1000s?) of truly impressive people from universities around the world having a chance to show off their innovative approaches to solving real problems while competing for honors in a truly serious competition.

A minor complaint: the DOE website doesn’t make is a quick and easy process to check out the twenty teams. Thus, over the fold, a quick description of each team with a link back to the home web sites.

University of Arizona:  The Arizona “SEED” Pod is, as seen to the right quite an attractive structure, designed for easy transport and deployment. Among other interesting features:

  • Graywater reutilization
  • A two-sided (bifacial) PV system, which generate electricity for both sides. Reportedly, 30% more efficient than single-sided panels. (Okay, don’t quite understand the cost-benefit of this, looking to find out more on the mall.)
  • A greenhouse that serves as a biosphere, improves air quality, filters gray water, and encourages food production
  • A water wall that uses water as thermal mass to deter heat from entering the house during the day and release it slowly when the sun sets

Cornell University:  Called “Silo House”, this is a quite intriguing looking entry, with the main structures literally “silos”. It is “a modular structure with three interconnecting cylindrical rooms. Hydroponically grown landscaping surrounds the house with specially chosen grasses. The circular shapes reflect the silos that dot the rolling hills of upstate New York, and the team calls the overall effect “post-agrarian,” a reminder of vanishing farmland.”  Yet another that I can’t wait to see on the Mall. (Well, perhaps you might find this different, but heads-up Cornell team:  this user finds your website incredibly clunky to navigate, with pages taking too long to load and, for example, the “gallery” section particularly unattractive.)

University of Illinois: Urbana-Champaign Built with 100-year-old barn wood, the “Gable Home” has a form of traditional look perhaps comfortable with a good share of Americans. Looks, however, can be deceiving. What are some of the technologies the house incorporates?

  • Nearly 12 in. (30.5 cm) of high-performance insulation incorporated into the walls, roof, and floor
  • Laminated bamboo for structural elements that is stronger than wood and more rapidly renewable
  • A high-efficiency, small air volume heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system custom-designed for the small needs of the house
  • A special hot water system heat exchanger that contributes to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning
  • Efficient light-emitting diode lighting that further reduces electricity demand
  • Solar panels that generate up to 9.1 kW of direct current power, which is converted to alternating current for use in the house.

Iowa State University: The “Interlock House” summarizes the core concept: “we set out to create a house that demonstrates how existing principles of passive design, along with concepts of community interface and spatial organization, could allow a house to “interlock” with the environment, its occupants, and surrounding development. We wanted to show that a solar-powered home does not require revolutionary technologies.”  The team worked with state manufacturers on the development of innovative new products, such as an R-50 door, that could find a place in today’s market-place.  In terms of design, this is a fully ADA-compliant home, “designed specifically to appeal to seniors”. Wonder whether AARP staff will check it out.


University of Kentucky: Right off, have to comment that the S.ky Blue house has a logo ready for mass marketing (in other words, check it out on the team’s web site). The team has incorporated an intelligent control system, pulling down weather data and forecasts to provide optimal controlling of the building system. The system manages the house’s heating and cooling, the solar thermal system, and a series of pumps connected to thermal storage tanks to make heating, cooling, and ventilation as efficient as possible. Occupants can view their energy consumption and change their behavior or their system settings to meet changing conditions. S.ky Blue has both tracking and fixed pv.  By the way, as with Iowa (and other entrants), S*KY Blue is also ADA copmliant.  See A Corner of the Nation Mall is S*KY Blue.

University of Minnesota: Houses are, writ large, designed for the environment of the University team. That creates challenges and opportunities for each team. The Minnesota team, with the Icon House, faced the challenge of being so far north, requiring a different angle for the solar pv plus the challenges of hot summers. Thus, the design to enable effective pv placement and overhangs to cut summer heat gain. However, designing for Minnesota doesn’t mean designed well to compete at the Solar Decathlon which, of course, occurs in Washington, DC.

Brutally cold Minnesota winters lead to very high heating needs. However, potentially hot, humid weather during the Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. creates a very different set of needs. The ICON Solar House must perform under both conditions, so to meet this challenge we need a thermal system that is optimally sized for both the Solar Decathlon competition in D.C., and for the Minnesota climate

Writ large, by the way, I found Minnesota’s to be one of the easiest of the team sites to navigate, with clear (and interesting) explanations of a wide-range of issues. (Take note Cornell …?)  See An ICON-ic vision for a better future.

Ohio State:  “Ohio-centric” uses Ohio materials (including reclaimed wood) and Ohio appliances (Whirlpool) where possible. Ohio handled the location challenge by putting the pv panels on adjustable racks, enabling optimizing the pv for Ohio or Washington, DC, or …

Penn State: “Natural Fusion” is a beautiful open design with many interesting features including:

  • A Green Roof Integrated Photovoltaics system that uses plants to reduce heat on the roof.
  • A PV system that uses a new type of cylindrical, thin-film PV material
  • A “water bladder” system embedded in the floor that acts as thermal mass and are emptied for transport, which reduces fuel use
  • A southern overhang, which includes a solar awning coated in PV material, that blocks most of the sun in the summer, while allowing sun in during the winter

For further discussion, see Penn State’s Natural Fusion.

Puerto Rico:   Have to say that they’ve got a great house name: Caribbean Affordable Solar House, or CASH (as in Cash is Green).  The “Team CASH” core mission:

To raise public awareness that a solar house is not only a contribution to a healthier and better life for future generations, but also an investment in one’s own life. Propose a design that is attractive, cost efficient and a viable and real alternative to standard houses.

Now, considering where PV costs are right now, the 10.4 kw of PV panels are pretty impressive and seem likely to provide more than enough power for Puerto Rican living. See “Cash is Green”.

Rice University The Zerow House is focused, as well, on affordability. The team’s description:

Houston, we have a problem: Going solar is too expensive for me…

Solar panels, evacuated tube hot water systems, and other solar and renewable energy technologies are associated with high costs and tough maintenance. Sustainable materials (natural, organic, recycled, fair-trade, etc.) are also viewed as expensive. While interest in solar technologies increases as the cost of energy rises, the reality of owning photovoltaic and evacuated tube systems seems out of reach for the majority of the public due to concerns of cost, lack of education, and the difficulty of access.

ZEROW HOUSE: An Affordable Solution

The ZEROW HOUSE offers a unique zero energy home that places an emphasis on both solar power and affordability.

Impressively, although the numbers merit some checking, the team assesses their solar electric and hot water system cost at $30,000. One impressive item: this team is work with a client, the Row House Community Development Corporation, to develop a product (a house) that can fit into (can make) a community within Houston.

Team Alberta:  The Solabode is designed for its home in Alberta, Canada, with it’s SIP panels with R-44 insulation and a geothermal heat pump. Put together from four universities, Team Alberta took a different tack than Houston:

The SolAbode house has been developed as a showcase of what is possible at the high end of the Calgary market when it comes to net-zero energy solar home construction. Finishes, technology, ecological design intent and designer millwork and furnishings set this modestly sized home apart from other options on the market today.

Team Boston: Like Alberta, multiple schools compose Team Boston.  Curio House’s feedback system makes me feel the team designed this for me:

Curio.house features a monitoring and feedback system prototype that combines state-of-the-art hardware with a personable interface, allowing the homeowner to monitor the performance of their curio.house via the internet, including handheld devices such as iPhones or Blackberries. … Once the homeowner’s curiosity is sparked by the feedback of the heart beat, they are able to log into the computer interface to better understand where the efficiencies and inefficiencies are taking place, allowing for adjustments in habit and lifestyle. Rather than a “smart home” that tells the occupants how to live, this system takes the approach that with real time feedback, and a little curiosity, you will be able to make more informed decisions about how your life can be more sustainable.

See Showing CURIOsity at The Mall.

Team CaliforniaAs with many of the houses, Refract House is designed to integrate interior and exterior, extending the living space when the weather is nice enough to live with doors and windows open. (Southern California anyone?) Perhaps also Californian, the control systems are iPhone friendly and there is a greywater pond for landscaping. (See the Popular Mechanics spread and A Napa Valley Vision on The National Mall.)

Team Germany:  The surPLUShome provides surplus in multiple ways. For example, the team estimates that they will produce 200% of the building’s energy requirements. (If true, they should be able to power the car, during the competition, to do circles around the competition.) This team emphasized leading edge technology, with custom-made vacuum insulation structural panels, phase-change material in both walls (paraffin) and ceiling (salt hydrate), and an automated louver-covered windows.

Team Missouri:  The “Show*Me Solar” house is another with an advanced house control system and focused on ADA requirements.

Team Ontario-BC:  “Team North will design and deliver North House, a compelling, marketable solar powered home that makes use of the latest in high-performance architecture and mobile communication technology, while building Canada’s next generation of leaders in sustainable engineering, business and design.”  Team North uses a control system accessible via web or iPhone.  One of the challenges for the teams: mobility. Lauren Barhydt from Waterloo says: “The hardest part really was to build a house that comes apart. The ability to disassemble and reassemble was often the limiting factor.”  Design for living, in a tight space, is one of the Decathlon’s challenges. North House has furnishings that fold away when not in use, including a bed that folds into the ceiling.   By the way, when it comes to insulation: R-60 to keep the house warm up North.  See The NORTHern Sun Hits The Mall.

Team Spain: The B&W house is, yet again, designed for its home. The team rates its 14.9 kw pv as producing the equivalent of six house of power. What does that mean? True affordability as that excess solar power can be sold into the Spanish grid at a Feed-In Tariff (FIT) that would end up paying for the system.  This, as well, looks to be a very intriguing entry –  a modular concept enabling expansion and a very open interior for a small space. And, the entire roof (in essence) pivots, enabling the solar panels to track the sun for greater productivity.

University of Louisiana Lafeyette:  BeauSoleil’s slogan  “Believing in Tomorrow. Starting Today.” could fit for every one of the Solar Decathlon teams. This is targeted to be net-zero (no electricity cost) housing, appropriate for the Gulf Coast (designed for hurricane force winds), and costing an affordable $120-150,000 to start with.  Their web site suggests that there might be some Cajun entertainment to round out the home which might make them a popular stop for those visiting the Decathlon.

Virginia Tech:  The Lumenhaus’ system also has two-sided solar panels and control systems that ‘run the house’, incluidng moving around louvers as the solar angle shifts. “LUMENHAUS uses technology optimally to make the owner’s life simpler, more energy efficient and less expensive.”  (For further discussion, see An Illuminating Vision for Pavilion Living.)

University of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeMeltwater reflects the environment and geologic history of Wisconsin and is designed to optimize rainwater collection.

The above words do not do justice to any of the 20 teams but is put together to provide a single spot for linking through to all 20 teams’ home sites quickly.

More reporting to follow with visits to the Decathlon.

Tags: Energy · Solar Energy · energy cool · solar · solar decathlon

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Solar Decathlon cheat sheet « UMD Solar Team 2011 // Oct 6, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    [...] http://getenergysmartnow.com/2009/10/05/a-quick-cheat-sheet-to-solar-decathlon-stars/ [...]

  • 2 Emily // Oct 6, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    What an exciting and inspiring event! A solar decathlon is such a great way to bring together different states to showcase and promote solar technology! Thanks for the article!

  • 3 Penn State’s Natural Fusion // Oct 6, 2009 at 9:48 pm

    [...] Google Analytics _uacct = “UA-4876695-1″; urchinTracker(); ← A quick cheat sheet to Solar Decathlon stars [...]

  • 4 An Illuminating Vision for Pavilion Living: VT’s Lumenhaus // Oct 7, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    [...] A Solar Decathlon Cheat Sheet [...]

  • 5 Greenotter // Oct 7, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Nice summary. I find a weak website odd too, since I think it is part of one score in the contest. In 2005, when they were 2nd, Cornell was the only school that had a video of their home on YOUTUBE. I watched it 20 times. I like small energy efficient houses, so the Solar Decathlon is fun to follow.

    This year, I would like to see one of the homes become commercially viable, but am not counting on it. With our current president, I think the interest in the this year’s contest will reach an all-time high, as we hail the death of the McMansion and embrace zero energy and more efficient spaces.

    I admire all the teams but my house-design hero is Dr. Feist of Germany. I wish they had a passivhaus contest too, with no i-phone run houses.

    Anyway, I hope the teams take lots of video of their houses, so the people who can’t get to DC can see them. It’s the only way the rest of the world gets to tour them, although the photos are fine too.

  • 6 Making an ICON-ic statement about a better tomorrow? // Oct 7, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    [...] A Solar Decathlon Cheat Sheet [...]

  • 7 “CASH is green” // Oct 10, 2009 at 6:32 am

    [...] of the Solar Decathlon’s 20 teams developed their own philosophy, developed within their own regional requirements and styles, and [...]

  • 8 The NORTHern Sun Hits The Mall // Oct 11, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    [...] come to The National Mall as part of the 2009 Solar Decathlon, with two Canadian teams out of the 20 energy efficient solar powered homes. Team Ontario/BC took their geography to heat, forming Team North to North House to Washington, [...]

  • 9 cavity insulation // Feb 1, 2010 at 10:12 am

    We can talk about all these houses and all the new ways of being more energy efficient, but the fact is, as long as the prices are not reachable by many people, it will not happen

  • 10 Bright Rays of Sunshine Hit DC: A preview of The Solar Decathlon // Sep 19, 2011 at 4:19 pm

    [...] German Solar Rides Power Surge to a Win which discusses the winning home, structure of the Decathlon scoring that enabled them to win, and thoughts about how to move forward. [...]

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