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The Solar Decathlon’s WaterShed Moment

The University of Maryland’s home pushes at the formal boundaries of solar-powered houses, links water and energy with innovative ecological solutions, and wins the decathlon in the process

By Kim A. O’Connell

The one thing often missing from this year’s Solar Decathlon, ironically, was sunshine. The biennial architecture competition, which concluded this month in Washington, D.C., coincided with the cloudiest and rainiest weather ever witnessed in its near-decade of existence. But that made it even more fitting, then, that the winning house was designed entirely around the conservation and reuse of water.

Founded and organized by the DOE, the Solar Decathlon brings together collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar powered houses over a 10-day period on the National Mall. This was the first year the decathlon was held on the Mall’s West Potomac Park. All previous decathlons were given a more central location on the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, but due to National Park Service restoration plans, the DOE and the Department of the Interior initially moved the event off the Mall entirely. Various proposals pitched alternate locations, some of which were much less accessible and far outside the District of Columbia. The 2011 decathlon returned to the Mall only after intense lobbying by the AIA, decathlon backers, and other building industry groups.

This year’s competition (which the AIA sponsored in part) featured 19 teams from around the country, as well as from Belgium, Canada, China, and New Zealand. Teams competed in 10 categories, each worth up to 100 points: affordability, appliances, architecture, comfort zone, communications, engineering, home entertainment, hot water, energy balance, and market appeal. Even with the rain, seven teams ultimately produced an energy surplus, creating a very competitive field, especially in the energy performance and design categories.

One school, however, quickly established itself as the early leader: the University of Maryland. When Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced the overall winner before a raucous crowd a week later, Maryland had earned a chart-topping 951 points out of 1,000.

Connecting energy and water

Maryland’s entry, called WaterShed, was inspired by the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem of which its College Park, Md., campus is a part. Designed for a work-at-home lifestyle, the house is divided into three volumes: a smaller, private module with a reconfigurable bedroom/office, a larger module with a kitchen and living room, and a central hyphen that contains the bathroom. Several systems harvest, recycle, and reuse water onsite in ingenious ways—including a constructed wetland that filters gray water and rainwater for reuse in irrigation, and a liquid desiccant water feature that pulls moisture from the air for humidity control, which proved to be an impressive “wow” factor during house tours.

“Overall, the Solar Decathlon’s quality has improved exponentially compared to previous years,” says Cristina Zancani, cofounder of the Solar Decathlon Alumni Association and an urban designer at Perkins+Will, a decathlon sponsor. “Maryland’s entry differentiated itself by pushing the boundaries of the competition, [and] introducing solutions to another very relevant environmental topic, which is the use of water.”

“The average American uses 200 gallons of water per day,” says Amy Gardner, AIA, Maryland’s lead faculty advisor. “Some places in the world, people live on three gallons per day.” Maryland’s 2007 Decathlon entry, LEAFHouse, laid some intellectual groundwork by collecting rainwater through a vertical green wall. “WaterShed began where LEAFHouse left off,” Gardner says. “The paths that water takes in its various forms drove the organizational concepts, the house forms, house systems, and house-landscape connectivity.”

WaterShed’s most defining feature is its split butterfly roofline, which slopes inward toward the central connector. One side supports a green roof, which captures and directs water down to the constructed wetlands; the other holds the solar panel array. A solar thermal panel on one wall also absorbs sunlight that heats water. “The design appears as if we took a traditional gable roof, inverted the two sides, and slid them apart,” says Leah Davies, a graduate architecture student and one of the team’s two dozen student leaders. (Nearly 200 students worked on some aspect of the project). “As water converges in the center, we’re showing how energy and water are inextricably linked,” Davies says.

Changing the landscape

The design won Maryland a first-place finish in the coveted architecture challenge, one of four contests assessed by a jury of professionals, rather than based strictly on monitored performance. Design has become increasingly prominent in the decathlon, which in previous years resembled little more than a high-tech mobile home park—rows of trailers with photovoltaics attached. This year featured much more diverse and well-developed formal offerings. There was Team China’s Y-shaped house made of recycled shipping containers, and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) and California Institute of Technology’s CHIP house with its vinyl mesh exterior and curiously chamfered massing.

“The houses this year were spectacular,” says prefabrication design pioneer Michelle Kaufmann, who served on the three-member architecture jury. “While a few of the houses were clear standouts from an architectural design perspective—New Zealand, SCI-Arc, etc.—the more time we spent in the Maryland house, the more we found power in the subtle and elegant thoughtfulness.”

Despite its overall second-place finish, Purdue University’s INhome, designed in a traditional Midwestern ranch house vernacular, tied for last place in architecture. “We wanted to show people that they didn’t have to change their concept of what a house was supposed to look like,” says team spokesperson Kevin Rodgers. “We wanted them to have that ‘a-ha moment’—that their next home could be solar.”

Rodgers says the team was pleased, however, with its second-place finish in affordability, a new category this year, and a reflection of the current economic climate. In this category, 100 points were awarded for any house with an estimated construction cost of $250,000 or less, as appraised by an independent estimator. As prices climb up to $600,000, successively fewer points were given. (A $336,000 price tag earned WaterShed 12th place).

The affordability contest “changed the landscape,” Zancani says. “In previous years, it was easier to spot which homes had a more abundant pool of funding than others,” she says. “They outshined their peers with technology superiority and integration in very futuristic displays. This year [it] was harder to pinpoint the winner just from glancing at the entries.”

For now, the focus on real-world applicability is paying off. Like several other entries, WaterShed will soon be turned over to a real family. “WaterShed was more than just a university project,” Gardner says. “It was intended to influence the direction of the industry at large. We hope that WaterShed shows that implementing these types of green technologies and design is doable, affordable, beautiful, and accessible to everyone.”


The University of Maryland’s WaterShed, overall winner in the 2011 Solar Decathlon, combined aesthetic beauty, a compelling and integrated program (water conservation and reuse), and high-energy performance. Image courtesy of Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

Interconnected living systems at the WaterShed house include constructed wetlands and a kitchen garden. Image courtesy of Leah Davies/The University of Maryland.

WaterShed is designed for a work-at-home lifestyle, with reconfigurable pieces that can adapt to different needs. Office tables stack and extend, and a work table in the background converts to a bed. Image courtesy Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

The highly adaptable kitchen and living room of the WaterShed house relies on movable cabinetry and workspaces that can be arranged in a variety of ways. The liquid desiccant water feature, which provides humidity controls, is at center. Image courtesy of Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

WaterShed decathletes install their entry’s green roof, which was planted with drought-tolerant sedums (plants with water-storing leaves) in a lightweight system that can work on most conventional homes. Image courtesy of Jeff Gipson/The University of Maryland.

A water systems diagram illustrating how Watershed processes gray water. Image courtesy of Isabel Enerson.


Recent Related:

2011 Solar Decathlon Proves that Green Can Come in All Shapes, Forms, and Styles

Solar Decathlon Advances Affordable Sustainability

2009 Solar Decathlon Competition Begins

Team Germany Overtakes California and Illinois to Win 2009 Solar Decathlon


Visit the AIA’s Solar Decathlon website.

Visit the Committee on the Environment Knowledge Community website on AIA KnowledgeNet.


Back to AIArchitect Oct. 21, 2011

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