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Going Global: Solar Decathlon Extends Reach to Europe and Asia

Two years from now, the next Solar Decathlons will have planted their flags in the most populous nation on earth and in an epically historic Renaissance palace grounds

By Jane Kolleeny

With increasing numbers of baby boomers reaching retirement age, conversations abound about the importance of training the next generation of design professionals. One effective teaching tool is the university-based design/build studio, where students see their ideas evolve from conception to built reality while experimenting with fresh perspectives on digital technologies, materials, and construction techniques.

One real-world learning studio that has moved into the forefront is the Solar Decathlon, where students witness the implications of their designs through a 10-category competition that measures aesthetics, building performance, innovation, communications, fundraising, and marketability—all the design disciplines they will need to be successful architects once they leave academia. Moreover, the competition focuses on renewable energy and sustainable materials, preparing students for a future of climate change. Building product manufacturers have long sponsored the competition, which serves as a showcase for renewable energy strategies, especially solar, as well as for the latest in green products.

Founded by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2002, the Solar Decathlon was never meant to belong to any one country. In fact, after it launched on the Washington, D.C.’s National Mall in 2002, it spread to Europe in 2010, and next year will have China as a host country. “We wanted to go international for two reasons,” says Solar Decathlon founder and director Richard King. “First, to expand the attraction of the event. We quickly saw how people loved the variety of designs, the innovations from different regions of our country. Adding perspectives and cultural influences from foreign countries would be even more exciting and beneficial. Second, if climate change is truly going to be slowed down, everyone around the world has to work together.”

This past September, 18 teams finished building their houses in Casa Campo, a park in Madrid. Spain hosted the event in 2010 and again this year, despite a whopping 75 percent cut in the budget thanks to the long-simmering European debt crisis. “We received the help of nearly 600 volunteers—about 300 students from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM) and the rest from the organization Volunteers of the City of Madrid,” says competition manager Edwin Rodriguez Ubiñas. In spite of such belt-tightening, teams came from 13 countries, including Brazil, China, Denmark, France, Hungary, Japan, Norway, the Netherlands, and Romania. Scores were tabulated in 10 categories based on a mix of jury scoring and measurements of energy performance, comfort, building performance, and water use.

Taking risks

When the scores were tabulated and averaged, the first place winner was Canopea (“canopy”), a house designed by the Rhône-Alpes team from southeastern France. They designed a two-storied prototype of a nanotower cast in an urban context to address issues of density in the alpine corridor where the team originates. The project consists of a series of individual homes stacked in a small tower with shared meeting places, gardens, and elevated vertical farms.

Coming in a close second was the team from Andalusia in southern Spain with Patio 2.12, which introduces an innovative cooling technology based on the principle of the botijo, a clay bottle popularly used in Spain to keep drinks cool. In third place, a team from Rome won for Med in Italy, an indoor/outdoor house designed for a Mediterranean climate, with layered walls containing sand in aluminum tubes and coatings of natural insulation made to ensure thermal balance.

While scoring in the categories determined by quantitative metrics is straightforward, selection of the winners in juried categories was made difficult by the abundance of original thinking and grit among the teams. Jennifer Siegal from Venice, Calif.–based Office of Mobile Design, served on the industrialization and market viability jury. “I cannot recall any time in my career when I was so excited about ideas that were produced in real time, at full-scale, where the designers were so engaged in adventurous, sustainable solutions to industrialized homes,” she says. “The idea of taking risks is something I continuously expound upon with students. Here was the outcome of risk. While some [houses] were magnificent and some utter flops, all of the projects had a spark of daring creativity rarely found in the built landscapes of American cities today.”

No U.S. teams competed at this Madrid gathering. Virginia Tech’s Lumenhaus won the European competition in 2010, which disqualified them from competing this year, and most other North American teams participated in last year’s U.S. competition. King says the competition is iterative—teams come together and learn what works from each other. It usually takes a few tries before being successful. Of the three winning teams, the top two had competed in 2010 with different houses. All three winners had strong themes and inventive schemes, clearly articulating their intentions to the juries.

70 schools, 7,000 students

Next August the first Solar Decathlon in China will take place in the city of Datong. It will be hosted by the National Energy Administration (NEA) and the U.S. Department of Energy, organized by Peking University, and supported by private companies. “China has the largest population in the world,” says King. “We can have the most impact in numbers by holding the program in Asia. The Chinese government, through the NEA, is supporting the competition. It shows they are honest about their desire to become more sustainable as a society and economic powerhouse. They are willing to showcase new ideas to their people on a large scale.”

Twenty teams will compete in China, including several parings of U.S. and Chinese universities—the New Jersey Institute of Technology will work with the Harbin Institute of Technology, and Peking University has been paired with the University of Illinois, among others. In addition to a few Chinese-only teams, others groups will hail from Iran, Israel, Singapore, Egypt, Malaysia, and Turkey. Europe will again host in 2014, when students will build their modest-sized houses on the grounds of the Baroque Renaissance-era Palace of Versailles outside Paris, setting up an architectural war of aesthetic contrasts that might have horrified Marie Antoinette but is likely to energize the competition’s designers and visitors alike. Next year, the U.S. competition moves to Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., former site of Marine Corps Air Station El Toro. Turning the site into a sustainable park, the city invited the Solar Decathlon teams to build their houses on a paved runway.

The three locales put together now involve more than 70 universities from around the world with a total of 7,000 students and faculty. In addition, the competition reaches thousands of people through the media.  King calls it “a small but significant step in our goal to educate everyone in the world.”

Jane Kolleeny served twice on the European Solar Decathlon communications and social awareness jury. Formerly an editor at Architectural Record and GreenSource magazines, Kolleeny is currently retreat and business development director at the Garrison Institute, Garrison, N.Y.


The inauguration of the second European
Solar Decathlon in Madrid. Teams from
13 countries came to Spain to participate.
All Images courtesy of Solar Decathlon 
Europe I+D+Art.

The solar village occupied a Casa Campo,
a park on the edge of Madrid.

Canopea, the winning house from the
French team from Rhone Alpes.

The interior of Canopea, this year’s
European Solar Decathlon winner.

The interior of the Patio team’s house,
from Adalucia, which won second place.

An interior shot of the Rome team’s Med
house, which came in third.


Recent Related:

The Solar Decathlon’s WaterShed Moment

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


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