A little village of sustainable squatters has sprouted like mushrooms on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Students from universities and educational consortia have assembled twenty one-bedroom, one-bathroom houses – each one an entry in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.
The decathlon has brought a little solar town to the Mall every other year since 2002. As the name suggests, the structures are solar-powered and judged on ten aspects of sustainability and practicality. Students and faculty from departments of architecture and engineering collaborate on each project.
This is the third time I (Melody Voith) have been able to attend, and each contest has drawn bigger crowds. On my visit, the wait to tour each home was at least 30 minutes – and this was a very educated crowd. I overheard debates about architectural influences, the relative sustainability of different countertop materials, the ins and outs of solar hot-water systems, and the benefits of “bifacial” solar panels – all from people waiting in line.
Team Ontario/BC placed fourth, and theirs was one of three houses I toured. The house had wonderful floor-to-ceiling windows and a very modern interior. Automatic shades helped to control solar-heat gain in warm months, while allowing the winter sun to keep heating costs low. The rippled, textured ceiling looked like an art installation – its function was to spread light from a few light fixtures, keeping energy costs down. On the outside, the structure boasted building-integrated photovoltaics, and on the roof, a large PV array and solar thermal tubes to provide hot water and space heating.
Although the contestants used new building technologies very creatively, many – if not most – of the features could be used in any new (or maybe even renovated) home.
After all the judging and contest scoring, Technical University of Darmstadt’s Team Germany took first place for the second competition in a row. “We didn’t expect to win,” team member and architecture student Angela Specht told me (Kenneth Moore). As third (California’s Santa Clara University) and second (the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign team) places were announced at the awards ceremony this morning, Specht says, she thought TU Darmstadt’s team was surely in fourth until the first place announcement was made.
So, what makes a winning team? The fashionable thin-film copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) panels used as siding helped, along with the more efficient silicon solar panels on the roof. When I toured the house this morning, Team Germany had stored 394 kW but used only 227 kW through the competition. With so many cloudy, rainy, cold, and just generally icky days, that seems an impressive number – and it explains how the team got a full 150 points in the Net Metering section of the contest, the only team to do so. The integrated, multifunctional one-room design with heated-air ventilation, vaccuum-insulation panels in the walls, and phase-changing salt hydrate cells in the ceiling to moderate temperature helped as well, allowing the team net high scores in the Comfort Zone and Home Entertainment contests.
Patrick Tauchert, another architecture student with the team, described all the technological details of the house to me. I was most pleased with the touch-screen control panel he designed, which, after programming by engineers on the team, allows the homeowner to see when it is best to do laundry (when there’s excess heat and energy stored), how much energy each side of the building is collecting (the panels on the roof did the best, he told me), and other details. The control panel also acted as an MP3 player that serenaded visitors with Amy Winehouse during their tour.
Beyond technological integration and architectural concept, the team dedicated a year and a half to the project, Tauchert told me. Team Germany had only 24 members, primarily architecture students with a sprinkling of electrical engineering students. They received credits for the Decathlon, so they could focus on it entirely without taking other courses.
Specht told me that other teams spent three to four years on their project, but they also took other courses and had several hundred people on their teams (Illinois, for example, had over 200). With such competition, it’s easy to understand why Tauchert said “We were scared of some teams at first,” but, he said, interacting with the other students and seeing their houses “is really cool.”
The village will be on the Mall through Sunday, October 18th.
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