Decathletes Lead with Location

By, Richard J. King

The University of Maryland gives tours on the final open day of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, after taking first place overall in the competition. Photo: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Every two years I have the privilege of watching a Solar Village take shape. And every two years I am awestruck while observing the processes and outcomes of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, which challenges teams of collegiate students to design, build and operate solar-powered houses. These supercharged-students, also known as Decathletes, take center stage to showcase their innovative ideas in this unique competition. They package their creative thinking into a marvelous public display of ingenious self-sufficient homes. Each participating team applies imaginative strategies to do more with less — less energy, that is. It’s a tricky balance: incorporating conventional wisdom while at the same time challenging the status quo.

The goal: Design the best house possible. Operate that home as if a family of six were actively in residence for 10 consecutive days. Identify a target market and show how the home meets specific needs. Communicate effectively and convince everyone that this particular home is a cut above.

OK, the goal is clear. Boundaries are set, and rules define what can and cannot be done.

SD New Zealand
Team members from New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington celebrate after taking first place in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 Engineering contest at West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., Thursday, Sept. 29. Photo: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

But during the Solar Decathlon 2011, held Sept. 23−Oct. 2 at the National Mall’s West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., I was surprised to discover another development. The Decathletes embarked on a new mission, an unwritten script with a powerful message. Teams intentionally developed a strong sense of purpose beyond winning the competition. They came with a desire to stand up and communicate, not just through their voices, but through their homes. These Decathletes created compelling stories about their houses while addressing the ecology and culture of their own communities. These teams wanted to set an example.

For instance: The University of Maryland’s house, Watershed, showed how the built environment can help preserve watersheds everywhere by managing storm water onsite, filtering pollutants from greywater and minimizing water use. By expanding beyond energy, carbon and the atmosphere to include water and land, the students took a more comprehensive look at sustainability.

Purdue University proved that suburban houses are a perfect fit for solar. Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy, Solar Decathlon
Purdue University proved that suburban houses are a perfect fit for solar. Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy, Solar Decathlon

Purdue University proved that suburban houses are a perfect fit for solar. The INhome — short for Indiana home — is an innovative yet practical house that met the needs of a typical Midwestern homeowner in today’s cost-competitive residential market. Purdue’s solar home performed exceptionally well and was one of the most cost-effective in the competition.

SCI-Arc/Caltech’s CHIP (compact hyper-insulated prototype) house turned conventional wisdom inside out. Designed by the Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology, CHIP is an affordable dwelling with a small footprint, designed to be placed just about anywhere in a dense city like Los Angeles. California’s soaring land costs and suburban sprawl are the motivating factors behind the design. One of the house’s innovative, eye-catching features is its “outsulation” — a vinyl-coated fabric mesh that contains the insulation and is wrapped around the outside of the house.

Purdue's Kitchen SD 2011
Purdue University’s INhome meets the needs of a typical Midwestern homeowner in today’s cost-competitive residential market. Photo: Jim Tetro/U.S. Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon

University of Calgary’s entry is a unique response to the culture and needs of the Treaty 7 Native Peoples in Southern Alberta, Canada. More than 1.1 million native people in Canada live in sub-standard housing, so the Canadian team designed with this need in mind. Inspired by the tipi, the house has a rounded form and an east-facing entrance with culturally relevant interior decor.

The list goes on. The New York City-area team from Parsons The New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology designed a house for a low-income family in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign designed a disaster-relief home. The Belgians from Ghent University designed a do-it-yourself house that can be built by seven people with no machines. The Appalachian State University team designed a beautiful homestead to respectfully honor their North Carolina heritage. New Zealand (Victoria University of Wellington) designed a delightful vacation home. Florida International University designed a hurricane-resistant house. Each team had a different story to tell.

Most excitingly, every story had a similar message — that energy-efficient solar living is an affordable fit for all.

Showcasing Various Design Strengths

SD 2011 Final Scores
SD 2011 Final Scores

For those who enjoy the thrill of victory (or the agony of defeat), here is a quick recap of the competition.

After competing in four of the past five Solar Decathlons, including the very first in 2002, the University of Maryland reached their goal in 2011. Watershed captivated the juries and performed flawlessly in the measured contests, scoring 951 points out of 1,000, 20 points ahead of second-place Purdue University. The Maryland house moved into first place after being judged best in Architecture midway through the competition, and never relinquished the lead. The other juries also thought highly of the Maryland house. Watershed scored second in Market Appeal, third in Communications and fourth in Engineering.

For competing teams, impressing the juries was only half the story. Their houses also had to perform. One of the demanding tasks during this year’s competition ended up being dehumidification. The weather in Washington was rainy and cloudy, resulting in very humid conditions. The relative humidity outside never fell below 90 percent for the first six days (with temperatures hovering around 80°F, or 27°C), yet teams had to keep indoor humidity below 60 percent to score points. Try doing that when you have to open your house to thousands of visitors each day, sometimes in the rain.

Maryland took the lead on the first day, but was edged out by China’s Tongji University on day two. By the day three, when Tongji started to fade, Maryland moved back into first place with Purdue and Ohio close behind. All the houses were operating reliably, with no clear leader until the Affordability contest results were announced on Tuesday, Sept. 27.

To win 100 points in the Affordability contest, houses had to have an estimated construction cost of $250,000 or less. A sliding scale reduced points to zero at $600,000. Two teams scored 100 points: Parsons The New School-Stevens and Team Belgium. Purdue, SCI-Arc/Caltech, Team Massachusetts and Middlebury College scored 97 points or more (each with costs of $280,000 or less). Purdue, with its $257,000 house, moved into first place ahead of Ohio State. Maryland dropped to third with its $336,000 house.

Middlebury College's Solar Decathlon team cheers after they placed first in the Market Appeal contest in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011. Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon
Middlebury College’s Solar Decathlon team cheers after they placed first in the Market Appeal contest in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011. Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Purdue’s glory didn’t last long. On Wednesday, Sept. 28, the Architecture contest results were announced on Capitol Hill in the Congressional Visitor’s Center as part of a salute to Sen. Menendez from New Jersey. Maryland’s Watershed house placed first.

As the finish approached, Middlebury College, the small liberal arts college in Vermont, threatened an upset. Middlebury won first place in the Communications contest on Friday, Sept. 30, with their stellar messaging and communications skills, and then first place in Market Appeal on Saturday morning with a straightforward, appealing design that captivated jury members. That provided Middlebury with enough points to move ahead of Ohio State in the standings, but not enough to move ahead of New Zealand’s strong performance. Middlebury had to settle for fourth place overall, just four points behind third-place New Zealand.

For more scores and competition details, please visit

Building a Better Future

The value of the Solar Decathlon lies in what everyone learns. The students gain leadership skills while participating in the educational opportunity of a lifetime. Soon another set of university teams will be selected to compete in the 2013 event. They will undoubtedly impress me by designing even better homes, jam-packed with innovative ideas for sustainable living.

Richard KingMore broadly, the Solar Decathlon goes beyond being a competition for students who aspire to win. It’s a self-propelling rocket aimed at a better future. Decathletes recognize the urgency of their mission, and they are meeting the challenges head-on, full speed ahead.

Richard King, creator and director of the Solar Decathlon, works in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Buildings Program. He can be reached at

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