Mother Earth Living

Solar Decathalon: Cutting Edge Homes of Tomorrow

Solar Decathlon winners take green, efficient design to another level.
By Molly Loomis
March/April 2010
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The Team California Refract House scored its first both in Architecture and Communications contests.
Photo By Jim Tetro/Solar Decathlon
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Every other October, university students from around the world gather on Washington, D.C.’s National Mall for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, where they showcase cutting-edge, energy-efficient, attractive and livable design in 800-square-foot show homes. In the 2009 competition, the designers were asked to show how the homes maintain comfortable temperature and humidity ranges, to demonstrate washing and drying loads of laundry efficiently, and to host judges at a dinner party (no ordering in allowed!). In addition to architecture and marketability, homes are judged on the extent to which they feed energy back into the grid. Details such as low-VOC paint, Forest Stewardship Council-certified wood, low-flow fixtures and LEDs are de rigueur and hardly raise an eyebrow. The real accolades lie in the use of cutting-edge technologies such as the latest in photovoltaic panels, phasechanging materials and superefficient building supplies. A 2009 standout technology was an iPhone application that controls energy use and indoor temperature remotely. To maximize living space, many homes showcase innovative design measures including integral outdoor living space, dual-purpose furniture and creative, multipurpose spaces.

1st Place:  Surplus Home: Team Germany, Technische Universität Darmstadt

A showstopper for its technology and renewable energy capability, Team Germany’s surPLUShome also set the design bar with creative, space-saving features. Beds and storage spaces are hidden under removable floor panels; multifunctional features include a mobile dining table/countertop space and doors that separate or open distinct areas of the bathroom.

Techy highlights

■ Louver-covered windows control passive gain with sensors embedded in the glass.

■ An 11.1-kW PV system consisting of 250 thin-film panels is integrated into the exterior walls; the roof holds 40 more panels.

2nd Place: The Gable Home: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The University of Illinois Gable Home is a reflection of Midwestern agrarian design, with a steeply angled roof, simple lines and siding made of 100-year-old wood from a team member’s family barn. While the exterior nods to the past, the interior is all about the future. It’s built using Lamboo, a bamboo laminate board that moderates temperatures and is 10 times stronger than traditional framing wood.

Green details

■ Passive House Institute U.S. certification means the home uses 90 percent less energy than a typically constructed home.

■ R-value of 55 in walls, 75 in ceiling

■ “Barn door” summer shade panels regulate temperature.

3rd Place:  The Refract House:  Santa Clara University, California College of the Arts

Team California’s Refract house blurs the boundary between indoors and out. Wallsize retractable windows open the home to nature, and a large patio is integrated into the home’s core. “The idea of the house is living in the landscape,” team member Annessa Mattson says. The Refract House also presents an aesthetically pleasing disguise for roof-mounted photovoltaic racks using a customized roof angle and weatherproof fabric.

Design highlights

■ A pond, part of the graywater/rainwater catchment system, becomes a reflecting pool when rainy and a rock garden when dry. Planters conceal the filtration system.

■ Ceramics, glassware, upholstery, furniture, light fixtures, paintings and garments all made by CCA students and alumni.


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