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Solar Decathlon 2013: Designing the Houses of Today

September 12, 2013 - 12:40pm

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The Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology team's 10-month design process resulted in their unique design -- a house made of two prefab modules and canopies that run on a system of rails. | Photo courtesy of SCI-Arc/Caltech.

The Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology team's 10-month design process resulted in their unique design -- a house made of two prefab modules and canopies that run on a system of rails. | Photo courtesy of SCI-Arc/Caltech.

The Middlebury College team chose to design their house for its final placement in the team’s hometown of Middlebury, Vermont. The result: The team created a Solar Path -- a walkway under the free-standing solar panels to the front of the house. | Photo courtesy of Middlebury College.

The Middlebury College team chose to design their house for its final placement in the team’s hometown of Middlebury, Vermont. The result: The team created a Solar Path -- a walkway under the free-standing solar panels to the front of the house. | Photo courtesy of Middlebury College.

Made up of students from the University of Louisville, Ball State University and the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky/Indiana team decided to create a house that could serve as a permanent housing solution to a natural disaster.  Above is a rendering of the team's final house. | Photo courtesy of the Energy Department.

Made up of students from the University of Louisville, Ball State University and the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky/Indiana team decided to create a house that could serve as a permanent housing solution to a natural disaster. Above is a rendering of the team's final house. | Photo courtesy of the Energy Department.

The Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology team's 10-month design process resulted in their unique design -- a house made of two prefab modules and canopies that run on a system of rails. | Photo courtesy of SCI-Arc/Caltech.
The Middlebury College team chose to design their house for its final placement in the team’s hometown of Middlebury, Vermont. The result: The team created a Solar Path -- a walkway under the free-standing solar panels to the front of the house. | Photo courtesy of Middlebury College.
Made up of students from the University of Louisville, Ball State University and the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky/Indiana team decided to create a house that could serve as a permanent housing solution to a natural disaster.  Above is a rendering of the team's final house. | Photo courtesy of the Energy Department.

Ever wonder what it takes to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon? Over the next couple of weeks, we’re exploring how the Solar Decathlon 2013 teams’ energy-efficient, solar-powered houses went from idea to reality, and documenting some of the steps along the way in this two-year competition. Follow the series by visiting energy.gov/solar-decathlon and see if you have what it takes to be a solar decathlete.

Designing an energy-efficient, solar-powered house for the Solar Decathlon is like solving a riddle that has more than one right answer. Instead of just thinking about building materials and cost in the design process, teams have to consider a myriad of factors to create a winning house.

While the design process never officially ends, the teams spend more than a year focusing on the design before breaking ground on their houses. Early on in the process, they select a target client for their house -- one of the biggest impacts on their final design -- and decide how they will transport their house to the competition site. The teams also have to make sure their designs meet contest criteria and rules -- like staying within a specified square footage, not exceeding solar array dimensions and being accessible to visitors with disabilities. Throughout the process, the teams are required to submit construction plans and documentation, which are reviewed by the Solar Decathlon organizers for building code and rules compliance. Once their designs are complete, the teams can start constructing their houses.

SCI-Arc/Caltech Design Steps Outside of the Box and onto the Rails

Located in Los Angeles, the Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology (SCI-Arc/Caltech) team knew early on that they wanted to design a house for an active couple who enjoys the work-live-play lifestyle. Periodically meeting as a group, the team would make design decisions and then assign a piece of the puzzle to individuals to solve, design and present to the group. This gave everyone an opportunity to feel ownership while making decisions as a whole. The team’s 10-month design process resulted in their unique design -- a house made of two prefab modules and canopies that run on a system of rails. The occupants can use the rails to move the modules and canopies not only to adapt to the weather but also to increase the usable space within the house’s small 600-square-foot footprint. DALE, which stands for the Dynamic Augmented Living Environment, allows its occupants to live large in a small space.

Middlebury Creates a Path to a Brighter Future

The Middlebury College team was inspired to create InSite, a family house that allows the owners to live comfortable and sustainable lives. In choosing to design the house for its final placement in the team’s hometown of Middlebury, Vermont, the team wasn’t able to orient the solar panels for the competition site. To solve this problem, they decided to take the solar panels from their traditional place on the roof to create an architectural element called the Solar Path -- a walkway under the free-standing solar panels to the front of the house. This design decision led to other breakthroughs like the ability to create a full green roof to insulate and protect the house from Vermont’s cold winter winds. Every step of the way, the team made sure to incorporate sustainable decisions into the design -- from using local or reclaimed materials to shipping their house by train to save energy.   

Kentucky/Indiana House Helps Homeowners Rebuild After a Natural Disaster

Made up of students from the University of Louisville, Ball State University and the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky/Indiana team decided to create a house that could serve as a permanent housing solution to a natural disaster. Focusing on tornados, fires and floods, the team designed the house’s interior -- everything from storage to sleeping space -- with disaster relief in mind. They even created the bathroom with reinforced walls and a shatterproof window so it could serve as a safe room during a natural disaster. For the team, the biggest design challenge was the physical distance between the universities -- nearly 250 miles. To overcome this, they scheduled a design weekend every month where students and professors would travel to one of the universities and work on different designs. In the end, the team points to a Henry Ford quote that best represents their collaboration on the Phoenix House: “Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.”

Be sure to check back tomorrow on energy.gov/solar-decathlon for more on how teams prepare for the Solar Decathlon.

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