Paige Greene, a member of
the University of Arizona's
Solar Decathlon team,
explains their"water wall"
to Raul Torres, a student
from Chavez Prep in
Washington, D.C. The wall
is made of recycled plastic
bottles and is filled with water that absorbs the sun's heat.
By Lindsey Anderson, USA TODAY
Teams from across the USA, Canada and Europe are competing to design and build the most attractive and efficient solar home.
Each house relies completely on solar power; the teams aim to produce as much or more energy than the house consumes. Any additional energy the houses produce is pumped into the energy grid of the local power company, earning the teams extra points.
The houses must be more than just energy efficient. They also have to be realistic and aesthetically pleasing, says Richard King director of the Solar Decathlon. He began the project in 2000, he says, because reliable solar technology was being produced, but no one bought it because of its cost and appearance.
"A homeowner says, 'No, I don't want that in my backyard,' " King says. "This stuff works but no one wants it."
So he appealed to architecture schools, inviting them to work solar panels into aesthetic design of homes and enter the competitions — which he says have become increasingly innovative and creative as the contestants learn from each other, King says.
"I didn't realize the way it drives research and development. It started on the premise of education, but with each successive event, we keep marching forward."
On opening day, Oct. 9, tourists, students and locals waited in lines to tour the 20 houses, which sit in two rows on wooden platforms, surrounded by potted plants in lieu of landscaping. Water tanks substitute for ground wells, since 500-foot wells cannot be drilled on the National Mall.
Each house reflects the climate and lifestyle of its region; teams use local materials and designs. The 40-foot south wall of the University of Arizona house, for example, features a "water wall," made of recycled plastic bottles. It pulls water up through the wall to deter the desert heat from entering the house during day, then slowly releases heat at night.
The team from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign used reclaimed barn wood to build its house. The outside walls of the University of Kentucky's house work like an illuminated billboard, depicting an image of a Kentucky farm at night.
"Every (house) is different and they've all got a story," King says.
The teams spent almost two years designing and building the houses near their universities, then broke them down to ship and reassemble here. Some houses will go back to the teams' campuses after the competition; others will be donated or sold.
The house built by Rice University in Houston will be donated to Project Row House, a nonprofit organization that meshes low-income housing with arts and culture in a local historic Houston district.
It is the least expensive house in the competition, costing about $140,000 to build.
"Our house may not be the flashiest, but we made sure it could be for everybody," says team member Travis Martin, while leading a group of middle school students into the house.
The most expensive house was by the team from Ontario/British Columbia, King says. It cost between $650,000 and $850,000 to build. Like many of the decathlon houses, it can be controlled remotely through the Internet or iPhone applications. If homeowners forget to turn off the lights or close the blinds, they can do so from the Internet instead of rushing home.
Gary and Theresa Truitt, of Bloomfield, N.J., who were among the 400,000 to 500,000 visitors expected during the competition, say they could see themselves living in some of the houses, like Virginia Tech's "Lumenhaus," with sliding glass walls.
"The design on some of these is just stupendous," Gary Truitt says. "It's the way we have to start living in the future."
If visitors to the decathlon are intrigued by features used in the houses, they can find every product, from insulation panels to furniture, in a product directory on the contest website, www.solardecathlon.org.
Each team received $100,000 from the Department of Energy to start the project, then had to raise additional funds for construction, transportation and other expenses. Winners will be announced Friday at 8 a.m. As of Wednesday, Team California (with members from Santa Clara University and California College of the Arts) was in the lead.
But other than a trophy and bragging rights, there is no prize for winning the decathlon.
"They get to be the most famous house in America for a day," King says.