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The biannual Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the US Department of Energy and bringing together 20 university teams from the United States and other countries, is an amazing event that merits far more attention than the hundred or so thousand visitors and the spotty news (and blog) coverage of the event.  Truth be told, the Solar Decathlon is far from just a few week event on the Mall but encompasses years of effort from the multi-disciplinary teams developing a vision and making it a reality.  As someone who has been to all of the (US) Decathlons and had the chance to visit most (sigh, not all) of the homes, there is something quite important to note: with each Decathlon, the overall quality of the homes has improved -- significantly.  Every home had things that made it stand out.

Virginia Tech's Lumenhous' precision cut steel louvers made a statement on the Mall ... and, well, in Europe as well as it won Solar Decathlon Europe.

NOTE: Exhibit in DC for one more week on the 2011 competition ... beneath fold

Lumenous came out on top in the Solar Decathlon Europe which occurred in Madrid last month. (This was, after all, quite a leap forward from the 13th place finish on the Mall -- which is an indicator of the strength of the 2009 competition).

  In Madrid, Lumenhous' gorgeous architecture combined with overall strength to top the 17 teams

During the competition 17 solar houses from seven countries on three  continents were judged in 10 different categories. The Virginia  Tech Lumenhaus placed in almost all the categories, including tying  for first in Architecture, placing second in Communication and Social  Awareness, and placing third in both Industrialization and Market  Viability and in Lighting.

Sigh ... to have been in Madrid to see the 17 houses ...  In honor of their victory, see the write-up of Lumenhous from fall 2009 below ...

Well, Washington, DC, is a bit closer to home and a far smaller carbon footprint for the trip.

Luckily, at least for a week longer, a taste of the 2011 Solar Decathlon competition is open to the public.

Through 25 July, the National Building Museum has a special Solar Decathlon 2011 exhibit with the models submitted by the 20 teams who have won the right to compete on the Mall along with 'poster' displays from each team discussing their submissions philosophy and approaches.    In visiting the exhibit, two regrets: no photography allowed and that the eight-year olds were interested ... but really wanted to get back to the Lego exhibit.  All joking aside, reading through the posters and examining the models certainly suggests that the 2011 Solar Decathlon will continue the established trend that every competition is stronger than the last ...  With just one week to go, this is a strongly recommended museum visit.

In terms of innovation, there is a major change for 2011: a real focus on "affordability", with a target price of $250,000 or less.  

As per Richard King, the key DOE driver behind the Solar Decathlon,

For 2011, our focus has shifted toward education and affordability. That  is, reaching out to a broader student audience with information about  renewable energy and energy efficiency—and placing a stronger incentive  on participating teams to design and build houses that are less  expensive and use products that are available today. In this way, we’re  raising public awareness about affordable clean-energy products that can  help people save money and reduce energy use.

Hopefully there will be something else new in 2011.  No President or member of the President's family has yet visited the Solar Decathlon. Hopefully, President Obama will Put Solar On It (the White House) well before fall 2011, but what a statement if the White House arranges for several of the homes (the winner? the Hawaii house? the Illinois team) to end up on the South Lawn for a few weeks or, at least, arranges for a First Family visit to the Decathlon.

Now, the Hawaii and Illinois teams aren't accidental comment as both of these homes stood out in the (far too) short visit to the NBM exhibit.  The Hawaii house is strikingly different in design, reminiscent to me of a WWII Quonset hut but designed for functionality in face of a storm.   The Illinois entry has an innovative approach to fostering sustainable housing in a post-disaster situation, with the use of containers to move goods, be used for supporting disaster relief operations, and then be transformed into solar-powered housing.  As they describe the three stages:


  1. The first stage begins with a single conex container, which is  equipped with energy production and communication technologies and  serves as a central hub for aid and military workers or as an aid  station for disaster victims.

  2. In the second stage, a second conex container—filled with food,  supplies, and medical equipment—is arranged with the first unit to  create a larger distribution point.

  3. The third stage features the redevelopment of homes and  communities with single-family houses such as the one shown here. It  includes:

    • Roof-mounted photovoltaics to generate electricity

    • A green roof to provide an upper-level terrace

    • Vertical garden panels that can be planted to supply food.




To be clear, every home clearly merits attention and, well, a visit without two eight-year olds in tow might have led to a different focus. (Note: both of them had visited the Solar Decathlon on the Mall and wanted to see the exhibit -- on breaks from Lego, of course ...).  Again, a strongly recommended visit -- with or without those 8-year olds ...

REPOST from 2010 Solar Decathlon An Illuminating Vision for Pavilion Living: VT's Lumenhaus

Imagine the environmentally conscious socialite and their new cottage at the Hamptons. That is the feel that Virginia Tech's Lumenhaus gives in their, quite simply, luminous website and presentation of their entry into the  DOE Solar Decathlon, which opens Thursday on the Mall in Washington, DC, and which I had a chance to visit earlier today.

As the name suggests, Lumenhaus is a dwelling playing with light and living off it with extensive windows and both solar photovotaiic (electric) and thermal (hot water) systems.

The Lumenhaus' system also has two-sided solar panels which seem to be a 'new' feature appearing in a number of the homes this year.  These Sanyopanels, VT claims, have a 15% performance improvement over single side producing systems.

Control systems  'run the house' automatically, including moving around louvers as the solar angle shifts. (While the owner could override this, the automation is aimed to maximize performance -- whether heat gain / retention in winter or minimization / cooling in summer.)  This means that the system is constantly monitoring system performance, weather and interior conditions, and weather forecasts to achieve the optimal performance not just for that moment but also for the hours and days to come.

"LUMENHAUS uses technology optimally to make the owner’s life simpler, more energy efficient and less expensive."

These louvers are quite impressive, with laser cut 'circles', all bent to maximize light gain and minimize unwanted heat gain (thus, each of the 1000s of cuts is specific to that location on the louver).   Seeing them on the mall, with multiple color reflections looking toward the Washington Monument was stunning (let's hope the photos come out). The LumenhausEclipsis system actually is more than 'simply' these rather beautiful metal shutter shades, but also includes translucent insulating panels filled with aerogel.

All of this monitoring and automation means that the Lumenhaus, left to its own devices, will have a quite different look dependent on time of day, weather conditions, or time of year. As they ask, "does your home dress for the seasons?"

Wandering the Solar Decathlon is like being caught in a big candy store for the 'eco-geek' within, but it is also eye candy for the aesthetics' oriented (even though, of course, the integration of technology into our lives has a beauty of its own). Already mentioned, is the changing nature of the home during the season, the beauty of the shutter shades yet there is much more.  Watching the video, walking into Lumenhaus (even while under construction) creates an "I want that" moment, seeing it as an eminently livable space ... effective not just in energy terms.

Truth be told, essentially every one of the Solar Decathlon homes creates moments and feelings of "I want this" or "what a wonderful approach" or ...  That is one of the reasons it is such an Energy COOL event.

Posts related to the 2009 Solar Decathlon:


Overview of Decathlon / policy / framing / discussion

Originally posted to A Siegel on Sun Jul 18, 2010 at 08:57 PM PDT.

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