Bringing Home The Solar Decathlon


September 26, 2011, Washington, DC: Imagine a neighborhood where one home after the next is thoughtfully designed to minimize its impact on the environment. Where every house is affordable and innovative. Where houses are built from sustainable materials, like wood harvested from the local forest, or out of old shipping containers that were going to waste. Imagine a neighborhood where people grow veggies and herbs on their decks and in their kitchens, where solar panels and green plants grace their roofs, where homes are designed to feel cool in the heat and warm in the cold without paying massive energy bills.

Imagine living in a home that produces as much or more energy than it consumes each year. In other words, imagine a neighborhood that gives back more than it takes.

Now through October 2, this neighborhood exists in Washington, DC’s West Potomac Park, home of the Solar Decathlon 2011.

I've been itching for the return of the Solar Decathlon ever since it last made an appearance in D.C. in 2009. It speaks to that part of me that played with a lot of Legos as a kid -- not to build castles, but to lay out floor plans, design homes, and give walking tours throughout the space. It speaks to the part of me that pours over shelter magazines and design blogs and wanders through my neighborhood on the lookout for interesting architecture. My tours this weekend through the homes built by students around the world for the Solar Decathlon competition were consequently right up my alley.

Best of all was the incredible creativity put to good use in each these houses. I wanted to live in practically all of them. But until we're ready to buy one, there are plenty of tips from the competition to bring back home:

Live smaller. Competitors in the Solar Decathlon were required to build homes less than 1,000 square feet. But most of them didn't feel cramped or cluttered. Often one piece of furniture played multiple roles, like the dining table in Team Florida's Flex House that cranked up into a tall kitchen counter for food prep. Homes exhibited smart storage and several included prefabricated, modular additions that could be added on to accommodate growing families. One of those little pods functioned as a home office and others as storage sheds for sporting goods at Appalachian State University's Solar Homestead.

Get a good cross breeze going. Passive cooling was a prime consideration in lowering energy bills for each of these homes. Think about the natural ventilation in your own home, about how to better keep it cool in the summer without blasting the air conditioning. New Zealand's First Light home designed by students at Victoria University of Wellington featured a central breezeway with a huge kitchen table there in the cool space as the focal point of the home. Accustomed to warm weather, Team Florida surrounded its home with adjustable wood slats that shaded the space to keep it cool. Even with its sliding doors wide open, the house was pleasantly cool on a muggy D.C. day.

Equal and opposite considerations were true for students building for cold weather. Middlebury College students' Self Reliance house was intentionally stained black and built with extra thick insulation to absorb heat and warm the home during winters in Vermont.

Tune in to your surroundings. Knowing your natural environment can ensure your home is built to last. Florida International University's perform(D)ance House had large overhangs that could fold down as hurricanes shutters. University of Calgary’s Trtl home was constructed in accordance with native traditions and built in part to address a lack of housing on indigenous lands.

Keep it local. Consider turning to reusable, locally sourced materials as you undertake home projects. Team China's Y Container was built from six shipping containers otherwise going to waste. Locally sourced wood was the material of choice for competitors including Team New Zealand and Middlebury's Self-Reliance; cork flooring in homes including Team New York's Solar Roofpod and Team Canada's Trtl home was chosen as an affordable, recycled material. Growing your own food counts toward keeping it local, too; several teams here had edible gardens outside, inside, up, down and around their homes.

Use technology to become better acquainted with your energy bills. There's so much technology available to inform us of our habits. Familiarize yourself with your energy bills to see where you might make improvements. There might even be an app for that. Teams in this year's Solar Decathlon, like University of Tennessee, were using i-Pads to control mechanical systems, lighting, and home entertainment system. Tour guides at Middlebury's Self Reliance explained that the spike seen on their i-Pad on Friday night came from drying a load of towels.

Start rethinking roofs. City dwellers whose space comes at a premium can begin to take this tip to heart. We could cool our city surfaces considerably, as well as decrease runoff and lower energy bills, by planting greens on our roofs, or better yet, living in green homes in the sky. Not only was a planted rooftop incorporated into City College of New York's design, but the entire solar home was built for installation on New York City rooftops, going so far as to generate extra energy for the host building below.

More information about the Solar Decathlon is available at