Solar Decathalon 2011: This Year's Biggest Ideas

University teams bring their net-zero housing concepts to Washington

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Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

The future of solar energy – and, in particular, Washington’s financial investment in its cutting-edge application – has been on shaky ground since Congress began investigating the imploded solar-panel producer Solyndra earlier this month. But this week, as the latest officials are dragged to Capitol Hill, there’s hope for renewable enthusiasts barely two miles away from the National Mall.

Hundreds of university architecture, design and engineering students have been constructing a massive solar village on the Tidal Basin, a futuristic demonstration site wedged between memorials for FDR and Thomas Jefferson. This is, in fact, another Department of Energy project, although arguably a more wholesome one. The biannual event, called the Solar Decathlon, has brought 20 university teams to town to envision what affordable net-zero housing might look like (and to test – as this is a competition – whether such houses could actually run a load of laundry and power a true hot shower).

Courtesy Flickr user NewSchoolCommunications

Several of the houses this year – all of which were thrown up on site in about a week, at a construction cost of $250,000 – are designed for densely urban settings. One, built by students from Parsons and the Stevens Institute of Technology in New York, will even be transplanted across the Anacostia River after the decathlon to house a single mother and her three young kids in Northeast Washington.

That family will become the unlikely residents of the first net-zero house in Washington, through a partnership with Habitat for Humanity. As a result of the collaboration, students are hoping Habitat will shift some of its focus more broadly to constructing ultra-low energy buildings known as passive houses.

The house is designed for the narrow, abandoned infill lot it will take up. It emphasizes a broad front porch central to the community’s culture. And it includes gardening features to home-grow food in a part of town with few grocery stores.

Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Undergraduate students from the City College of New York have designed a 750-square foot pod that takes the rooftop garden one step further by placing a home on top of it. The pod is composed largely of buildings blocks that could be transported up an elevator. And the house has specially designed windows to warn off birds prone to nose-diving into urban high-rises. Students found in a feasibility study that 200,000 such units could fit on top of mid-rise residential buildings in Manhattan that are already equipped with elevators.

Across the country, where the problem in Los Angeles is sprawl and not density, students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and the California Institute of Technology have developed what’s probably the weirdest looking home in the competition. This house is wrapped in vinyl insulation, rather than lined with it, to maximize interior space. LA city regulations also require each residence to accommodate off-street parking, and so students have tucked space for a car under one slanted wall of the house, adding to its space-age effect.

 
Courtesy SCI-Arc/CALTECH

The Solar Decathlon expo is open to the public September 23 through October 2.

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.