The future of sustainable living is showcased at the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, an international competition that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate energy-efficient solar-powered homes that are also visually appealing and practical. The winning team in this solar competition accumulates the most points in 10 distinct categories including architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance.
The first solar decathlon was presented by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2002. Since then, this solar competition has been held on a biennial basis. The concept for the solar decathlon has also caught on internationally, with competitions now occurring in Europe and China. The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is open to the public free of charge. Visitors are encouraged to tour the solar exhibit in order to get ideas for energy efficient concepts they can apply in their own homes and learn about money-saving opportunities available through use of energy-saving technologies.
Since its inception, homes featured in the solar exhibit have demonstrated to over a million visitors that energy efficient homes can be functional, attractive, and affordable to boot. In fact, part of the criteria for judging the solar competition is evaluating architectural elements, holistic design, and inspiration in order to end up with an energy-efficient home that real people would actually want to live in. Entries are also evaluated by a professional estimator to determine the construction cost of each house. A team can earn a maximum of 100 points for designing a home with a construction cost of $250,000 or less. A sliding point scale is applied to homes as estimated construction costs increase; houses with estimated construction costs over $600,000 do not receive any points. The objective is to construct an energy-efficient home that is affordable to the majority of homeowners, rather than a small sector of wealthy homeowners.
Many of the homes featured in the solar decathlon incorporate an open, airy feel into sleek, modern design elements such as the one designed by the University of Texas A&M team featured here. Others use plant materials hand in hand with manmade, energy-efficient elements such as the (literally) ”green” wall seen here in the Leaf House, designed by the University of Maryland.
Collegiate teams wishing to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon must submit plans and proposals for consideration as outlined here. The next solar decathlon will be held in Irvine, California at Orange County Great Park in fall of 2015.