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Curtain Call: Team Austria's Draped Pavilion Wins
One of many net energy positive homes is lauded for its design, communications, and energy balance

By Kim O'Connell

In what was the most competitive Solar Decathlon in its 11-year history, the winning house belonged to the students from the Vienna University of Technology—known as Team Austria—whose structure combined a sophisticated Modern aesthetic with a high degree of flexibility, not to mention some surprising design decisions.

University of Las Vegas Nevada took second place in the overall competition and Czech Technical University received third place. See a complete list of all teams competing in this year’s Solar Decathlon and the final scores.

Organized by the U.S. Department of Energy (with support from the private-sector and the AIA), the Solar Decathlon was first held in 2002 and has taken place biennially since 2005. Collegiate teams from the United States and abroad must conceive and build solar-powered houses that showcase nearly all potential metrics of sustainability, livability, and design. Spanning the 10-day competition are 10 equally weighted contests dealing with architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability (houses must aim to cost $250,000 or less to build), comfort, hot water, appliances, and home entertainment. Some contests are juried; others are based on quantitative data.

For the first time, Southern California, not Washington, D.C., served as host (international Decathlons have been held in China and Europe). This year, 19 teams from universities in the United States, Canada, and Europe built and operated a village of solar homes in Orange County Great Park in Irvine, a new multiuse park built on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. With help from AIA Orange County (AIAOC), another first for the decathlon was an exposition called XPO, 55 green-building vendors and organizations set up next to the Decathlon that hosted a range of activities, speakers, and products. XPO may be a feature of future decathlons. (Despite coinciding with the federal government shutdown, the Decathlon was able to proceed because of previously appropriated funding.)

As student teams competed nearby at the Decathlon, AIAOC also exhibited the award recipients of its 2013 Student Design Competition. “[With] Orange County's award as the host of the Solar Decathlon, AIAOC is committed to making the 2013 Student Design Competition all about sustainability,” says Jeffrey Gill, FAIA, executive director of AIAOC. The competition’s objective was to transform the old Newport Beach City Hall site into a sustainable mixed-use environment. The chapter received 40 entries, with the first-place student honor award going to Dylan Bachar.

"This year's Solar Decathlon entries were very diverse," says Gill. "These young people are coming up with innovative approaches and amazing ideas that are far beyond my generation."

The forest from the trees

This year saw more close point spreads and ties than ever before in the Decathlon's history. Only about four points separated first-time competitor Team Austria (951.9 points out of a possible 1,000) from the second-place team from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and the third-place team, from the Czech Republic, had 945.1 points. Also notable was that this year every house produced more energy than it consumed. In total, the Decathlon village produced a combined energy surplus of more than 2,000 kWh during the competition.

In such a competitive field, Team Austria distinguished itself with its sleek architecture and integrated approach to sustainability, communications, and energy balance. Described in the team’s promotional materials as “simple, smart, and sustainable,” the winning house—called LISI, short for Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation—is a prefabricated one-story structure designed in the tradition of a Modernist pavilion. Its spare appearance is countered by the earthiness of its materials. The house is about 96 percent wood, with only a small percentage of steel to comply with California's seismic load considerations. The inspiration, says Sebastian Ortner, a master's degree candidate and Team Austria member, is Austria's heavily forested landscape in general, and the visual and functional metaphor of a tree in particular.

“When we presented this house to the public, we brought in that comparison of the tree being the house,” Ortner says. “As the tree has roots, our house has a foundation. The trunk is the interior private core of the house, the branches are the cornice, and the canopy and leaves are the curtains on the outside.” Indeed, the house's most notable feature may be the combination of adjustable shading devices on the exterior. This includes outdoor Teflon curtains that are opened, moved, or closed depending on the time of day or year; they also extend the living space around the house's two patios. The curtains provide an unexpectedly soft counterpoint to the house’s strictly rectilinear nature.

Because building with wood can create so much waste, Team Austria took care to incorporate recycled wood products, including dining chairs made of compressed sawdust and recycled barkboard on the walls in the bedroom and bathroom core.

A subtle statement

Another crucial design decision involved the photovoltaic (PV) solar array, which was, unlike several other entries, low-profile, roof-mounted, and virtually invisible from the ground. “One of our philosophies was that an eco-friendly house does not need to have ‘eco’ written all over it,” Ortner says. “In the past, PV modules would have made a statement. The placement would have been very high and at a high angle. But since the price of solar has gone down, there's something quite normal about it now, and every house should have it, so we wanted to show how it could be incorporated. It's such a simple way to generate energy.”

Other sustainable decisions included a heat-recovering shower tray, which reduces the energy demand for hot water by almost one-third by recovering heat energy from water discarded down the shower drain. Another is an energy-recovery ventilation unit that acts as an exchanger between exhaust air and fresh intake air to keep living spaces comfortable. Still, one of Team Austria's lowest scores came in the “comfort zone” category, which faculty adviser Dr. Karin Stieldorf attributed at least in part to cultural differences. Austrians generally do not require interiors to be as cool as Americans are accustomed to, she says.

The LISI house will go back to Austria, where it will be exhibited at a model-house village alongside more traditional “pointy-roof” houses, as Ortner calls them. The educational and innovative aspects of the Decathlon will continue, Stieldorf adds. Already, a student is working on developing insulated sliding doors that can be added to the house to help adapt it to the less-temperate Austrian climate while maintaining its inherent flexibility.


The LISI house is almost entirely made of wood—a nod to Austria's heavily forested landscape—but Team Austria took care to showcase recycled wood products such as dining chairs made of compressed sawdust. Image courtesy of Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

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Team Austria's winning entry in the 2013 Solar Decathlon is a prefabricated Modernist pavilion distinguished by the use of exterior weather-resistant curtains. Image courtesy of Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

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Team Austria was inspired by the metaphor of a tree, with the private core—bedroom and bathroom—likened to the trunk and curtains acting as leaves. The bedroom is lined with a recycled wood barkboard that creates a cocoon-like atmosphere. Image courtesy of Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

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The LISI house features a heat-recovery tray in the shower that captures energy from drain water. Image courtesy of Team Austria/Vienna University of Technology.

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


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