US Department Of Energy Solar Decathalon--From A Gardeners Perspective

The US Department of Energy sponsors a "Solar Decathalon".  Held biennially, multi-discipline teams of students from colleges and universities around the world compete to design, build, and market an energy efficient home.  
Engineering students work on solar and HVAC systems;  business students work on marketing and presentation,  architectural and design students work on--the architecture and design, and so forth. There is a target budget of $250,000 for each home, and they are judged in 10 different categories (hence the "decathalon" name).
Despite dreadful weather, nearly 100F (37c), the competition was fascinating, so we stayed much longer than we expected to.  

Many of the features of each home were far more practical and successful than you'd expect.  No yurts.  I wouldn't say everything was successful--one house was particularly hot and the cooling system proudly described by the designer was obviously not keeping up with the temperatures--but overall, there was much innovation and creativity.  This being a garden blog I took note of the use of plants.  

One quite impressive thing was how regional the solutions were.  Most homes reflected the climate and needs of the region from which it came.
 The plants, were mostly donated or borrowed locally and were not key portions of the projects.  Shipping costs to the event site in Orange County counted as part of the budget, so the farther from California, the less extras like plants could be featured.  

 The project by Crowder College and Drury University featured storm windows and special construction to withstand tornadoes.

 The home will be taken apart and shipped back to Missouri, where it will become home to a family.  It was also great looking, with a  striking design. 
Special storm windows added over energy efficient windows:
 They had some plants donated by local growers set out.

Of course a California school,  Cal State Sacramento, was the one with a garage.  Each home had an electric car and students were required to refuel the car from their solar array and drive it a certain number of miles over the two-week contest period.  
The CSS home will be taken apart, shipped back to the campus, and be used as farm worker housing. 
 Conventional on the plantings. 
 The UT Austin/Technische Universitaet Muenchen--you'd think there would be a cultural mismatch between Texas and Germany, but their home was very successful--Austin/German.  It worked!  They had a hydroponic system and southwestern native plants.  Plant wise, one of the best. 
 Hydroponic system with a solar powered pump:  very German.
 Plants:  very Texas.
 The Orange County entry, a joint effort between UCI, Chapman, IVC, and Saddleback Colleges, was beautiful, but the line for it was long and it was one we missed seeing the inside.  Top marks for architecture and design, no?  They had the lowest shipping costs. 

 UC Davis had innovations like sliding exterior window shades to keep heat out of the home.  The shades can be slid open in winter to allow solar warmth in on colder days.

University of Buffalo offered a home that included what they called a grow-larium, a play on solarium.   They might have had high expectations of the gardening skills of their target homebuyer, but it was quite an appealing house and with many handmade features, like the movable counters with multiple functions (steel work surface flipped to wood dining table) and raised growing beds on wheels, beautifully crafted.  

 The light-filled "grow-larium":
Hand crafted raised bed.  The student who made them was there to talk about them.  On wheels.  Yes there's a drain in the bottom.  Well done! 

The West Virginia/Rome team (another unexpected combination) produced a very sleek and elegant home.  Far more Italian than coal-country.
 Complete with vertical herb garden.  Italian, no question.
 Missouri University of Science and Technology created a home with creative uses of recycled materials--the exterior surface was crafted from shipping pallets:

  The home had a relaxed, Ozarks-rustic kind of vibe to it, except for the plants.  

 The plants were...plastic.  The palm tree was...plastic.  The hydroponic system contained plants made of...plastic.  But remember, they had to ship their project a long way, and use of plants is not one of the judged categories.

 At least the veggies in this tower were real. 
 Marketing and presentation is part of the competition.  Signs are judged for clarity, and information.
 Plastic palm tree.  :( 
 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a major college for horticulture and landscape design in California, had some great native plants.

They also had a demonstration of a low-water lawn.  It is said to require only one watering a week.  It had a lovely fine texture and a deep green color;  other than that I have no idea of how it performs.
 Very California design, but they got a fail on their cooling system.  The 100F weather defeated it soundly.
 Ultra-urban New York City College of Technology had a few tired houseplants.  
Somehow that wasn't a surprise. 

 In the same area as the Solar Decathalon, the Great Park Experimental Farm beckoned, so we went and looked around.  That was interesting as well.  Irrigation efficiency is one of the "experiments"
 Plants grown above ground in plastic tubes of soil-less mix. 
 No matter how how you experiment with growing methods, the pests always manage to find the strawberries
 We didn't see every entry, but the ones we did see were impressive.  It was a joy to see students getting extensive experience in working together on a complex, two year long project to build something wonderful.   They should all be very proud of what they have accomplished. 


  1. Very cool and informative! I paid the most attention to the two Midwest entries of course -- that first one was quite stylish! The pallet exterior I'm not sure about, but the informational sign was instructive. Six years to start seeing cost savings sounds not too bad, but then you realize that the biggest yearly savings was from the produce that you'd grow -- which to me is the least reliable part of the equation. It's also the most effort-intensive. I'm leery of the savings there...

    1. The Buffalo NY home also had what you might call highly optimistic predictions on home vegetable growing.

      Electricity must be very cheap in other parts of the country, because our savings from a photovoltaic system far exceed their estimates.

  2. Yes, fascinating! Thanks for a great tour. LOVED the Texas/German home, the raised planting beds on wheels, the lath house vibe of the Cal Poly entry... and that last photo could have been taken in my own neck of the woods. I heart SoCal :~) If the houses became available to the public, I could see myself buying some land and giving one of these teams a call.

    1. It is wonderful for the students to get such extensive real-world experience on building a project with a team--I wish I could have done something like that in college. I hope many of them have great future success because of this program. Some of the teams have already found futures for their project-homes (one of the criteria is that they be able to dis-assemble and re-assemble them) and others are still working on it, while a few are destined for permanent deconstruction.

  3. Some great ideas here. We were just talking yesterday about the need for a Manhattan Project-type initiative to get the energy grid ready for the 21st century. What a shot in the arm for the economy too, jobs, etc. Out with the old, in with the new!

    1. Good things are happening out there, but they are not as well publicized as what the Kardashians had for dinner. Sigh.

  4. Thank you for this. If it cools a bit before this is over, I may drive down and take a look!

    1. It far, far exceeded my expectations. Creative and inspiring. I recommend a visit. In any case, lets hope it cools down, finally!

  5. Kudos to the students and the initiative. We're seeing a good present and future here!

    1. It was so positive and hopeful. We all need more of that!

  6. How cool is this! I would have *LOVED* to be able to tour these exhibits. I'm quite proud of the work being done in California (my chosen home) and Germany (my birth country).

    1. I!t was super cool! The UC Davis house was great--perhaps it will appear somewhere near you.

  7. I'm so impressed! I'm going to see if I can bend my husband's arm to make the trek down that way. It's probably a no go unless the temperature comes down for the weekend but I remain hopeful that will happen. (And we could both use a break from digging and sifting.)

    1. I hope you get to go, Kris. It was engineer-nerd heaven. We loved it.

      Yes, desperately hoping for cooler weather. Our overnight low was 78F. Yecch!

  8. The UT Austin- German partnership is a natural -- Texas hill country was settled mostly by Germans. That cistern shouts 'Austin!'.

    The Sacramento house looks very livable. Maybe it's the car ...

    Love that dark arch-pergola on the WVa-Rome project. Certainly the whole thing has the feel of Italian design, but that arch is actually strongly reminiscent of a striking bridge over I-64 in WVa that's one of the landmarks on our trips westward.

    Thanks so much for braving the heat to give us a look at these highly encouraging projects.

    1. Interesting about the WV bridge. Maybe that was in there. I thought there was some connection between Texas and Germany. The CSS focused on living space; their "target client" was farmworker barracks or temporary farmworker family housing; and they succeeded. One super cool feature that house had was an entrance door through a "mud room" of sorts, but unlike a mid-west or eastern "mud room" the purpose was to handle coming in muddy from work--the room was a big space and a shower, so people could clean up right away before relaxing and resting at home.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

      I'm glad we went; it was great.

  9. Oooh, just took in the sliding 'barn door' shutters on the UC Davis house. Very clevair and stylish. House (inner) side of each shutter could be imaginatively painted for the benefit of those inside looking out, too.

    Cal Poly SLO: I've always loved the feel of being inside a lath house, but not sure I'd want to live in it nonstop; but what an excellent porch or indoor-outdoor room for a usually-sunny location. I imagine their cooling system can handle the usual coastal "heat" of San Luis Obispo. Remarkable and impressive if most of the other projects were able to keep things comfortable in that blazing desert.

    1. I liked the barn door shutters a lot, now looking at them, a slider on the bottom as well for wind event stabilization would be a good idea.

      Yes, the SLO cooling--they were playing around a lot with their technology in that area more so than other projects did--not with stellar success--other homes had more photovoltaic panels to provide more cooling, or made a point of cross-ventilation via open window, which despite the heat helped a lot.

      Good point; it doesn't get that hot in coastal SLO. They talked about the lathing exterior quite a bit--there was more lathing on the sunniest parts of the house and less on the shady areas. That lathing was supposed to help shade the house and reduce the need for cooling. It did look great.

  10. you have photovoltaics on your home for your electric car?
    Was hoping for a blog post about it.

    1. Yes we do have a 4.9 kW array, somewhat small by today's standards since the price of panels has dropped something like 95% since we had it installed in 2006. That was quite a while before I started blogging. I'll have to post a photo for you.

      Since the electric company installed a "smart" meter a few years ago, I can now easily track what we use vs. what the array generates. Net is that it produces about 1/3 of our overall power use. I would LOVE to add more panels, but our roof is not a good one and we don't have much more room.

      We always charge our cars at night between 10pm and 8am, at which time we get a less expensive rate from the electric company. At that time the electric company has a surplus of wind-generated power, which is why we get that less-expensive rate at that time of day.


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