Solar Decathlon heats up the National Mall

One bedroom, one bathroom, 784 square feet, $288,000, and zero net energy bills for the rest of your life? No, it?s not the guard shack at the electric power plant ? it?s Pittsburgh Synergy?s Solar Decathlon House. Remember the weird construction project in Donner Ditch? It was rebuilt on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., along with 17 other houses from teams all over the country in the 2005 Solar Decathlon competition.
Now that the competition is over, the house will come back to CMU, parked permanently in the Donner Ditch for students and faculty to use. During the day, the house will be home to the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research. At night, the house will serve as a meeting place for various environmental initiatives.
The final results of the Solar Decathlon were announced Friday. Pittsburgh Synergy took 10th place overall in the competition. Stephen Lee, Pittsburgh Synergy team leader, spoke positively about the results: ?The Pittsburgh Synergy Team placed in the top five in the juried events that we worked diligently on ? Architecture (fourth place), Dwelling (fourth place), Electric Lighting (third place), and Daylighting (fifth place). In the engineering contests, we took fourth in the energy balance contest. This was very important to us.?
Unfortunately, the weather was cloudy throughout the Decathlon, leading Lee to deem this event the ?Battery Decathlon,? since the team with the biggest batteries won. ?We refused on principle to compete in the Battery Decathlon,? said Lee. ?Our battery storage was designed for three days without sun, and the winning team had a storage capacity of four times ours.?
The winning team turned out to be BioShip from the University of Colorado, which also won the 2002 Decathlon. Lee said that BioShip ?charged their batteries in the Colorado sun and ran their house on the batteries for the entire competition.? This allowed the Colorado team to score big in the ?Getting Around? portion of the competition, in which teams use excess solar energy to drive electric cars as far as possible. According to Lee, BioShip ?drove their car over 300 miles, compared to ours at 13 miles.?
Predictably, scoring for competitions in their formative years can depend on technicalities. Future competitions wil be able to draw from past experience and be more fair. For example, the 2002 Solar Decathlon was criticized for allowing major corporations to build some team?s houses. Fortunately, that loophole was closed this time around.
Lee feels that his team played fair. ?When Synergy had energy, we ran the appliances and operated the house in good faith; when we had no energy, we shut all the systems down.? He also said that he will press the organizers to alter competition rules, such that ?holistic thinking is rewarded over gaming the system.?
The Tartan caught a bus at 6 am on October 8 to be on location at the Solar Village, talk with Lee, and get a feel for the competition.
Despite the early hour, practically every seat was filled, as an eclectic mix of CMU students and staff prepared to tour the Solar Village. Upon arrival in Washington, D.C. four hours later, the air was dripping with irony. Foreboding storm clouds blocked the sun?s rays and a downpour began the moment visitors stepped off the bus, soaking everyone to the bone.
Yet, as promised, the Solar Village was arrayed on the National Mall, the tiny dwellings elegantly framed by the tall spire of the Washington Monument at one end, and the grand Capitol building on the other. In the rain, the houses appeared highly inviting. Teams cheerfully invited a drenched public into their carefully manicured spaces.
Each house was unique, both in exterior architecture and interior design. One could easily imagine living in some of the houses, and many tourists asked the same question: ?Is it for sale?? The New York Institute of Technology team?s hydrogen power and hanging loft was especially fascinating, along with the Virginia Polytechnic Institute team?s water-purification ponds and parabolically-shaped ceiling, and the Rhode Island School of Design team?s rooftop garden.
Pittsburgh Synergy?s address was Solar Village Lot 114, specifically chosen by Lee so the slanting roof would receive maximum sun. The house seemed rather popular, and even with the rain, tourists with their children werewaiting in line to get inside.
Lee said, ?The house is holding up very well. We have learned that small children love to touch everything and to open faucets and water coolers. Every time we turn around, there is a new pool of water on the floor.?
Although they lacked sun, the well-insulated houses proved impervious to the cold. Inside, the atmosphere was cheery and bright, as the tour guides explained the various features of the houses.
Lee explained that Pittsburgh Synergy?s goal was to build a ?passive solar house that required minimum external energy to be livable.? In the end they were successful. According to Lee, ?we never turned on the heating or cooling systems and our house remained in the expanded thermal comfort zone for 100 percent of the competition.?
While it is easy to get caught up in the numbers, it?s important to realize that simply participating in the Solar Decathlon was a victory for the team. The house represents heroic feats of fundraising, construction, design, and initiative, and collaboration from more than 50 volunteers from four schools and outside organizations. The house was truly cross-disciplinary, combining science and design, art and architecture to achieve a worthy goal.
?Overall,? Lee said, ?the level of design and innovation was an order of magnitude better in this competition than 2002.?