Observations at the 2015 Solar Decathlon by Amy Heidner, PE, and Dennis Heidner
Decathlons take years of planning and preparation, hard training; then, in the short period of the competition, it sometimes seems that the final result is simply decided by fate. The day-in and -out planning, carefully looking at the rules, determining your weakness and strengths and perhaps sizing up your competition, the weights you’ve lifted, the miles you’ve run, the mental preparation all comes down to a few fleeting moments, and so it is with the DOE’s Solar Decathlons.
Efficient houses, solar houses, and passively heated houses are not new – indeed the basic concepts can be traced back nearly 6000 years.  As it became easier to harness energy with better fireplaces, then coal burning furnaces and stoves, then natural gas appliances, and later yet more modern electric devices, modern societies chose to maximize convenience and sacrifice the efficiency of the energy use, often without being conscious of making the choice. But as the world population grew and the demand on resources grew, so did the impact from many of the unplanned consequences of societal choices. Loss of green space for recreation and outdoor sports, increased urban heating, air quality issues, and seemingly endless trains of coal used to supply our collective appetite for that easy energy.
Relearning how to build efficient houses would seem to be an easy task, as simple as a walk in the park, but what might seem to be obvious often isn’t. As we built out our societies using an increasingly larger energy foot print – we also incorporated many of those rules that resulted in the higher energy use into regulatory codes. We trained our next generations of architects, engineers, designers and contractors on how those systems should work, asking that they minimize the upfront cost while maximizing comfort and convenience. It was a success – the Craftsman house  was the dream come true.
While there are many early adopters living the energy efficiency, solar energy, net-zero energy philosophies, taking these mainstream requires that achieving the goals is possible for those who are not the pioneers, those who are not the inventors of new technologies, those who are not the visionary do-it-yourselfers. The DOE Solar Decathlon is about university students combining already available technology, building materials, appliances, etc., to create small, efficient, appealing, marketable houses which embody these visions in a way which can be deployed by the next wave of people, those who come after the pioneers, and which meet current building codes to ensure the health and safety of the residents.
As we write this article, teams of dedicated university students are running the Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in Orange County, California. Ten events make up this endurance competition, 5 juried events with judges drawn from the ranks of professionals in the field, and 5 measured events, with performance determined by the unforgiving meters monitoring electricity use and production, water use, etc. In addition, there are the daily living tasks which teams must complete: running showers, cooking meals, hosting parties, running errands in their electric cars which are charged from their house, and washing and drying clothes and linens; these houses are not just for show.
The houses aren’t just about technology, either. The student teams must describe their target buyers, then design, build, furnish and decorate with those buyers in mind. The student teams must set a selling price for their house, and create marketing materials designed to attract buyers. They must create materials, exhibits, and safety ramps so that their “real estate open houses” (public viewing hours) are appealing and interesting. All of these activities earn points for the teams; winning the decathlon is determined by the sum of the points from each task, contest, and category. Teams do not have to comprise engineers and architects; Middlebury College is a liberal arts college which had a very appealing entry in the 2013 Solar Decathlon. As in any endeavor, the key is taking advantage of your strengths.
By the way, in our opinion, any student team which actually gets a house to the Solar Decathlon for the competition is a winner, points notwithstanding. Teams submit detailed applications, including building concepts, fundraising and financing plans, team composition, and integration with supporting university curricula, nearly two years ahead of time for a place in the competition. Some of the teams in the 2015 Solar Decathlon began their training before the 2013 Solar Decathlon had even completed. They (future Decathletes) came and observed the previous competition first hand. From those applications, Solar Decathlon organizers select roughly 20 teams for the competition. Along the way, fate sometimes intervenes. There may be a few drop-outs due to insufficient funding, or missing an interim deadline, or inability to get the house shipped to the competition site. This is a marathon followed by a decathlon; we wonder how we ourselves would have gotten through this massive team effort in addition to being full-time students.
The list of rules is 62 pages long, plus another 17 pages of building codes. We’ll leave the judging to the judges and the meters; what we’ll cover is our individual, more personal reactions to the houses, the students, the venue, and ways we believe this competition advances (or occasionally, doesn’t advance) the implementation of energy efficiency and sustainable living toward the mainstream. As an example of the sorts of observations we’ll be sharing, one kitchen which we toured during the 2013 Solar Decathlon was beautiful, in an aesthetic sense, but terrible in the usability sense. The work triangle (lines connecting range/oven, sink and refrigerator) wasn’t a triangle at all; it was a straight line. The counter across from the appliances, while it provided a nice social spot for guests to sit and interact with the cook (that’s “cook”, singular), made the kitchen too narrow for more than one person at a time to work in the space. We don’t know about you, but our children were raised to be in the kitchen helping at mealtime, so we weren’t impressed with that design.
You can find the official rules, along with the teams’ information, the current scores, the lists of judges, official photos and more at www.solardecathlon.gov. Better yet, if you’re near the Orange County Great Park, come see the houses; public hours are 11:00-19:00 Thursday, 15 October, 2015, through Sunday, 18 October.
We will follow up this article with two more; crossing the finishing line and the technology of the 2015 Decathlon.
Amy Heidner, PE, and Dennis Heidner perform engineering research and consulting in the fields of energy use and small buildings at The Rextor Group PLLC, Kirkland, WA.
Image: Thomas Kelsey/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon
1. Perlin, J. and Lovins, A. 2013. Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy. New World Library.
2. The Craftsman house, also called Arts and Crafts Architecture, is an American architectural and décor movement which originated in the late 1800s and continued to develop during the first half of the 1900s. For photos of typical Craftsman houses, see Craftsman Perspective.
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