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University of Maryland Wins 2011 Solar Decathlon

  • Jeff Swicord

An international collegiate competition to build the best solar-powered home took place recently in Washington. Nineteen teams competed in 10 categories, and the winning was not easy.

An unusual assortment of houses popped up rather suddenly in this park along the Potomac River in Washington. The houses are entries in the Solar Decathlon, a two-year competition to design, build and operate homes powered entirely by solar energy.

Richard King is with the U.S. Department of Energy, the sponsor of the event. "The culmination of which is to bring them here on the National Mall, set them up, open the houses to the public, but at the same time running a competition to see who’s got the best house," he said.

The Energy Department receives about 40 proposals from universities across the United States and around the world. The best ideas are awarded grants to begin design and construction. This year, grants went to 19 student project teams in architecture, engineering and design.

"We have got six recycled containers here," said Xi Fengixin from Tongji University in Shanghai while showing team China’s entry.

Participants are expected to build a house suitable for their region of the world. The Chinese team designed a house made out of old shipping containers from the Port of Shanghai.

Densely-populated Chinese cities have limited space. So, team China designed a space that converts two bedrooms into a single, large living space.

Each solar-powered house must produce as much energy as it consumes. The houses are judged in 10 categories, including architecture, engineering and affordability. Xi Fengxin says the China team's house costs less than $250,000. "Actually, it is cheaper than the normal house in Shanghai,' she said.

Teams often work around concepts. After tornadoes destroyed neighborhoods near the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the students there decided to design a house for disaster victims. Carolyn Mesha is an architect on the design team. "Our home consists of two modules. When a disaster does strike, they are shipped on a single truck that can be shipped to the disaster within 24 hours," she said.

The electrical and water systems must be fully functional .

This year's winning house, from the team at the University of Maryland, caught the eye of the judges because it integrated several solar technologies. Lyn Khuu is an architect on the Maryland team. "We wanted to create an integrative design, instead of just having solar power to include aspects of water conservation, [be]cause there is a huge issue that we are facing today, and will continue to face into the future," she said.

Maryland’s design also features a kind of micro-wetland just outside the bathroom that naturally recycles wastewater from the house.

For organizers, the Solar Decathlon is an opportunity to introduce the next generation of architects, engineers and designers to clean-energy technology. For students, it's a real-world work experience that will serve them over a liftime.