The Solar Decathlon, hosted by the US Department of Energy, is an international challenge to architecture schools to create energy-efficient homes. The projects have been developed over the past 2 years, and will go on display in about a month and a half in Washington D.C.For those who don’t know, the Solar Decathlon is a bi-annual competition run by the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition challenges 20 college teams to design, build and operate small homes, more like pavilions, which are energy efficient, economical and attractive. Each team is judged in 10 fields(Architecture, Market Appeal, Engineering, Communications, Affordability, Comfort Zone, Hot Water, Appliances, Home Entertainment & Energy Balance), hence the decathlon name. Each field is worth 100 points, which are awarded based on certain criteria as well as a jury of experts in each field who provide points for unmeasurable qualities.
The teams consist of architecture, engineering, interior design and other students, all working together to design and build their structures. This multi-faceted team allows students the opportunity to develop an understanding of each others decision making and prioritizing, which many school programs only glance over, if ever even touch.
Although we feel it’s a great program, and it gets points for exposing the environmental impact building has, as well as catalyzing cross-major colaboration and bringing it all to the public, there are some things that the contest seems to miss. Due to the format of the competition, having to deploy the structures on the National Mall, it restricts the wholistic design approach, as well as the use of other low-impact, ecologically concerned, means of energy production.
First, the situation of all of the projects in the middle of the National Mall hardly simulates the normal environment of build projects. And even if given an open field, certain choices can have large impacts on energy consumption, such as orientation, specific location within the site (in a shaded area by trees, certain sides of hills, etc.) as well as concerns caused by other built forms, such as reflections from other buildings. Secondly, the impermanent nature of the structures prevents teams from using strategies such as geo-thermal heating/cooling, as well as discouraging things like the use of thermal masses within the building. And lastly, the size of the designs is somewhat misleading in regards to energy use and living space. The minimum area for a home is 600 square feet, with a maximum allowable area of 1,000 square feet. For reference, a small/medium sized 2-bedroom apartment is about 1,000 square feet. This small scale living is hardly an ideal, and most people would prefer to have more space.
Although it has short-comings, we think the DOE is doing a great thing, and perhaps they can change a few things about the competition to allow for other strategies, and mroe realistic solutions to the challenge of creating comfortable, sustainable and efficient spaces. So with that, we will leave you with a few projects from past years.
The University of Illinois
University of Arizona
All images courtesy of the US Department of Energy.