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Students Showcase Sun Powered Homes in First Ever Solar Decathalon - 2002-10-02

The first Solar Decathlon is taking place on Washington's National Mall. Students from 14 American colleges have built solar-powered houses that use energy very efficiently. Competition judges will choose a winning entry Saturday.

The wide green lawn between the U.S. Capitol and Washington Monument has been the site of a flurry of activity as students and workers put the finishing touches on their custom-built houses. Some are simple, shoebox-shaped buildings; others have modular units and modernistic flair. All have one thing in common: large, dark blue photovoltaic panels on their roofs. Once considered too costly for practical use seen only on satellites in outer space, advances in photovoltaic research have now made the technology a practical alternative to fossil fuels in sunny areas of the world.

Richard King, who oversees photovoltaic research at the Department of Energy, helped launch annual cross-country races with solar powered cars 12 years ago. "Solar energy is now becoming more affordable. It's starting to [be installed] in houses. There are still some barriers there; the technology is not quite there. I thought of translating the same kind of contest [with solar cars] with universities designing things, and giving them the motivation of a contest. So I dreamed up the Solar Decathlon," he explains. "It's a big contest where schools of architecture and schools of engineering team together to design from the ground-up a solar-powered house. It has to be energy efficient and we're going to have a set of [criteria] to see who has not only the best looking one, but also the most effective one."

Among the features decathlon judges will be considering for each house are its ventilation and temperature control, hot water supply, lighting design, and aesthetic appeal.

Richard King says rather than having a simple demonstration project, he wanted a competition to bring out the students' best innovations. "There's nothing like competition to motivate … to bring the shrewdness and creativity and the drive to want to be better than their peers. So university competitions are just wonderful. It pushes the envelope; it advances R & D [research and development]. There's a lot of technology here and new ideas spawned at our nation's universities. It spills over to [all] youth, their energy it's a wonderful combination," he says.

Two years ago, every American college with architecture and engineering programs was invited to enter the contest. Fourteen accepted from such diverse locations as the University of Colorado, the University of Puerto Rico and Texas A&M.

Each college raised money for the design and construction of their houses, with some costing as much as $250,000. Many companies, such as British Petroleum a major photovoltaic-maker and Home Depot a major building supply-chain became principal sponsors of the competition. The student teams constructed their buildings on their campuses disassembled them and finally brought them by land or in the case of Puerto Rico - by sea to Washington. Competition organizer King secured a permit, which allowed three weeks for assembling, exhibiting and dismantling the houses on the National Mall.

"Right at midnight, our permit went into effect. We had about 60 trucks out here with parts of houses and cranes. We had a ribbon across [the boundary] and right at midnight, we threw the ribbon across and it was like the Oklahoma rush, a land rush! They went driving down the Mall and started unloading it was almost surreal," Mr. King says. "By two o'clock in the morning, a lot of the houses were going up. You're standing there in front of the [U.S.] Capitol [building], on our nation's doorstep, and see the houses going up on the Mall. It was an amazing time to be here."

Many of the homes had unique characteristics, such as the University of Virginia's use of recycled, early 19th century stones from their classic rotunda building on campus. The university also has a recent innovation called the "luminaire" lighting system. It uses fiber optics to transmit light from the sun throughout the house. Behind the wood, copper and glass of the house are some very high-tech computer systems to maximize energy conservation. Emily Mottolese, a University of Virginia architecture graduate student, says their home will serve as a prototype for future houses.

"We've pretty much run out of or about to run out of a fair amount of our resources. So we cannot live within the bounds that we have been. Houses like these [are] the houses of the future. This is how it has to be," Ms. Mottolese says.

Another Virginia student, Charlotte Barrows, says she and her design team are part of a new generation of architects and engineers. "It's an aspect or way of looking at architecture that's very intriguing to me and probably the only [career] route that I take from here on out. Architecture that doesn't respect the environment and give the occupant a healthy place to live or work doesn't really interest me," she says.

Ms. Barrows adds that the University of Virginia house may be regarded as carrying on the tradition of the school's campus planner, President Thomas Jefferson, who founded the college and its architecture program in 1825. "Jefferson was about innovation, and he was innovating for his time. We at the University of Virginia especially with the school of architecture believe in designing for our time, being resourceful and looking ahead. This house epitomizes that," she says.

Although there is no grand cash prize for the winner, Solar Decathlon creator Richard King says all of the student participants will gain a great deal from their Washington experience. "The winners get to have probably the most famous house in America for awhile, and the education of a lifetime. This is a turning point in their lives, believe me. They've spent two years working to put this on. We have a nice trophy, but it's secondary to everything else that they accomplish and the rewards they get from an endeavor like this," Mr. King says.

Once the houses are disassembled and brought back to home campuses, Mr. King says many will be reconstructed permanently. "Crowder College had their home on Ebay [internet web site] for awhile. They had a $75,000 bid. Then their college said, 'Hey, wait a minute, this is too nice of a house!' Once they saw the inside, they took it off the auction block. Now the [college] wants it. The University of Virginia is going to bring their house back and it will become a guest home on campus," he said.

The University of Delaware is going to turn theirs into a working laboratory on campus.

Carnegie-Mellon theirs is the top two stories of a townhouse! They've already built the [ground floor] in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After this competition, they're going to take the house back and lift it up and put it atop the [first] story and donate it to the city of Pittsburgh."

Richard King says he also hopes the message for the students and the thousands of visitors to the Solar Decathlon area in Washington will be the importance of developing independent sources of energy. Mr. King says, "Solar energy is global. The people in Japan have the same amount of sunlight as the people in America. It's a very equalizing source of energy. Your neighbor has as much as you. You don't have more than your neighbor, unless [they] have more trees."

Solar energy researcher Richard King of the United States Department of Energy, who created the first Solar Decathlon, now taking place in Washington.