WASHINGTON - Equal parts architecture exhibition, science fair, and Olympic event, the Solar Decathlon drew teams from 14 colleges to the lawn of the U.S. Capitol for a competition to build the ultimate solar home: well designed, energy efficient, and capable of powering an American household with all the mainstream comforts.
The entries, restricted to 800 square feet each, included a colonial, a mobile home, and a futuristic living pod made of insulated glass and translucent walls that glow at night. The contestants, who lived in the solar village for a night, cooked pizza in solar ovens and navigated the makeshift streets in electric cars.
All houses were required to have photovoltaic panels able to power an array of appliances, air-conditioning, a television six hours a day, a satellite-linked computer running all the time, and an electric car battery pack good for 50 miles.
Amassing the highest score for design and livability, the University of Virginia team built a house with an exterior of reclaimed copper cladding and trellises made from shipping crates.
The interiors are made of maple paneling and have floor-to-ceiling windows. The walls move to let in sun and heat in winter and to create breezes and shade in summer. A mirror dish on the roof feeds daylight through fiber-optic glass tubes for diffusion into the rooms. A gutter system catches rainwater and diverts it to potted plants.
One of the design judges, the Australian architect Glenn Murcutt, said: “The design of solar homes must be as poetic as it is rational. The Virginia team considered building materials, insulation, ventilation, and the use of light - whole-building, sustainable design.”
The leader of the Virginia team, Adam Ruffin, 27, compared the house to a high-tech race car, “a fine-tuned machine that's highly responsive to its environment.”
The U of Virginia house came in second overall, behind the one built by the University of Colorado at Boulder. Third overall was Auburn University.
More than 50,000 people dropped by during the late-September weekend to inspect the houses and track their energy use, monitored electronically on a large flat-screen scoreboard. “I guess this is what you call grass-roots energy independence,” Carol Jackaway, a visitor from Colorado, said.
Many of the visitors inquired about buying several of the houses, which were taken apart and trucked back to college campuses after the competition.
The house by the team from Crowder College, a two-year school in Missouri, won the People's Choice award, determined by a vote of the visitors. Some of the students involved in the Crowder house worked on it their entire time at Crowder.
Winner of the Good Neighbor award was the team from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. That house is to be donated to a subsidized housing organization in Pittsburgh.
Each team was composed of 20 to 100 students of design, architecture, and building sciences (and some professors). They had two years to prepare, raising contributions of money and equipment and accumulating budgets of up to $500,000. The sponsors included the Department of Energy, Home Depot, BP Solar, Philips, and Andersen Windows.
A growing number of companies are banking on a solar trend. Home Depot announced last month that it has expanded distribution of solar products from three stores to 61.
Harry Shimp, chief executive officer of BP Solar, said his company expected to triple solar revenues to $1 billion by 2007.
Architectural firms are starting to go solar too: More than 30 percent now offer energy consulting and sustainable-design services, according to the American Institute of Architects, one of the sponsors.
“You don't go back to crawling after you've learned to walk,” said Matthew Henry, leader of the U of Colorado team. “Sustainable design is the logical next step. Why would I ever go back?”