Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Week in the Sun: The Solar Decathlon

The National Mall was
recently transformed into a solar village during the 3rd Annual Solar Decathlon, where structures from 20 Universities from the US, Canada, and abroad were judged on a series of criteria, including Architecture, Engineering, Market Viability, and Communication, as well as more technical demands, such as Hot Water, Lighting, and Energy Balance.

The beauty of the solar decathlon is that it is an opportunity for us all to see that energy efficient and sustainable environments are not only a real possibility for the future, but that they can be attractive and comfortable as well. The location could not be better: As the nucleus of the DC tourist scene, it allows a great number of individuals from a diverse background to tour the homes, learn about sustainable initiatives, and challenge students' perceptions of what makes a solar house a desirable solar home.

Perhaps most impressive were the innovative uses of material and the small details that teams had incorporated into the various homes. Plant walls were used in several homes to soften the hard lines of the design, including
the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid and Team Montréal. The incorporation of semi-transparent and translucent materials was a common element, from Plexiglas doors with frosted patterns to polycarbonate walls. Wood and metal panels were features of many homes as well, and slate was even used on Penn State's entry.

The use of solar cells was also an a
rea of innovation, from their use in translucent panels on the building envelope, as demonstrated by Georgia Tech and Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, to the ingenious incorporation of solar cells on wood louvers on the Technische Universität Darmstadt entry (the decathlon's first place finisher). An 'architecturally integrated heat exchanger' was a creative and sculptural element in the University of Colorado house, which also featured a reused container, painted bright orange, as a central component of their design. Super-graphics behind polycarbonate panels added a fresh, energetic vibe to the exterior of the University of Texas at Austin house, and the Georgia Tech entry was jazzed up by sweeping translucent panels that arc up to create sun louvers on the front façade. Louvers on the faces of entry were an almost prerequisite element, such as those on the exterior of Penn State's house, which could be raised or lowered to alter light levels, respond to varied sun angles at various times of year, and ultimately crate a more dynamic façade. Louver were also a prominent feature of the University of Maryland entry, which won the People's Choice Award.

The simplicity of
the design of the Technische Universität Darmstadt made this entry a personal favorite, and demonstrated that an energy efficient home didn't have to be overtly solar with a large array stuck prominently on the roof. Overall, the homes were inspiring, and offered many unique design elements for consideration. I'm looking forward to the next event, to be held in 2009.

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