Solar Decathlon Coastal Teams Highlight Ecology as Well as Energy

Each year, the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Solar Decathlon” pits university teams from around the U.S. and the world against each other in a competition to craft a super energy-efficient small house design. This year, the architecture and engineering teams are focusing not just on energy efficiency, but on sustainable resource use. The Decathlon, of course, is an educational tool for the DOE, aimed not just at the participating university teams, but also at the public as a whole. This year, all 20 participating teams have produced “digital walkthrough” videos that showcase their original house designs, explaining the concept, structures, and functions of the buildings. Team videos are collected in a DOE playlist on YouTube . Teams from coastal states are working to adapt their solutions to the particular challenges of the coastal environment. Maryland’s “Watershed” house, for example, is strongly influenced by the challenges of building an environmentally sensitive home near the troubled Chesapeake Bay estuary. The team’s solution, organized around a “central water axis,” emphasizes wise use of water and on-site management of wastewater. The building’s roof aims to harvest, not just solar energy, but rainwater; and a constructed wetland in the landscape will pre-treat stormwater before releasing it back to the sensitive Chesapeake Bay estuary. Florida International University’s entry reflects Florida’s subtropical climate. The design includes horizontal sun-shading screens that fold down to do double duty as windstorm protection for the building’s windows. But like the Maryland team’s Watershed project, the FIU building integrates the living environment into the built environment, using edible landscaping plants. For the student teams, the Decathlon is an exercise in design collaboration and teamwork. In this YouTube interview , FIU team members describe the experience of working together to develop their design concept, organize their team, and solve problems. The practical experience sometimes leads to continuing accomplishments beyond academia. In Massachusetts, for example, architecture firm Zero Energy Design grew out of Cornell University’s 2005 Solar Decathlon team. Six years later, Zero Energy Design has several high-performance homes to its credit in New England, including this Truro Massachusetts netzeroenergy house on Cape Cod, which shows the modernist style typical of many Solar Decathlon projects.