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The Solar Decathlon Winners Design A House That Generates Clean Power, But Doesn’t Cost Big Bucks

After the 2009 DOE competition saw the costs of entries soaring, this year designers were asked to focus on houses that could be built for more reasonable sums. The results are impressive.

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It was the austerity year. With 4,000 students, 19 cool-looking houses, 357,000 visitors, and 10 days of fevered competition, 2011’s  Solar Decathlon–the Department of Energy’s biennial student house-building contest–had all the buzz of previous years. But the houses were a lot cheaper.

Setting up for a week on the Mall in Washington, D.C., the model houses (we wrote about the process of building one of the entries earlier) were put through the renewable energy paces, to see which could use the least energy and generate the most from the sun. Unlike other years, though, thrift was at a premium.

Back in 2009, some teams spent upwards of $800,000. This time, following the introduction of a specific affordability test, most came in the $250,000 to $350,000 range, says the contest’s director, Richard King.

“We’re in a recession, and we want to show that solar is affordable. Last time, the homes were escalating in costs, because you can pour a lot of money into high-cost components. These houses were more appropriate for 2011. But actually by bringing them all to around the same cost, it made for a tighter contest.”

In the end, the University of Maryland took the overall prize for its WaterShed, followed by Purdue for INhome, and New Zealand (Victoria University of Wellington). Others won side contests for architecture, engineering, market appeal, and in other categories.

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Of the 19 houses, seven were able to generate more energy than they consumed–a pretty good achievement considering the patchy weather over the Mall during the contest’s run. 

“That’s a testament to how well-performing they were. If they still been up on the Mall this week, with all this sun, probably all 19 of them would have been surplus,” says King. 

The houses are now off in all directions. New Zealand sold their beach-style bach-house in auction. The Tidewater team gave their Unit 6 to a low-income family in Hampton, Virginia. Parsons the New School for Design/Stevens Institute of Technology did something similar. Others went on tour, or reassembled their dwellings on campus as “living laboratories.”  

But King says the most lasting legacies are what the students learn and take with them into their careers.

“They don’t know how much they learn because they are working on so many disciplines at the same time. Some of the sponsors have hired these students already. They have such a leg up in getting a job.”

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As for 2013, King is now looking for a new site, after the National Parks Service decided the Decathlon causes too much damage to the Mall. He is also hearing from a new set of teams.

The next contest will likely re-introduce a transportation element–possibly requiring teams to charge up cars from the house, and drive a minimum 40 miles a day.

“I feel that we should expand the circle to bring the car companies in and say how do we design our communities of the future. Having low-carbon housing is only focusing on part of the problem. We also have to look at how people are going to transport themselves.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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