Team Germany's winning Solar Decathlon entry.
Last week’s Solar Decathlon brought a wealth of much needed media attention to architecture and building construction. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the decathlon has come to represent one of the most significant research- and development-related benchmarks for the architectural profession. Interestingly, the notoriety and prestige of the Solar Decathlon have resulted in its direct correlation to a general sustainable design approach, rather than what is actually a very particular and often controversial one.
The DOE’s website clearly states that teams compete in the Solar Decathlon “to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar-powered house.” Despite this clearly stated goal, I have been surprised to learn how many teams include every “green trick” they can muster into their designs—when the established scoring system does not always prioritize such ideas. Emergent green materials, in particular, are not given much attention in the scoring. (The subset of the Architecture category entitled Inspiration highlights “design surprises”—a mysterious classification tempered in other categories by the questionable attribute “appropriateness.” Inspiration constitutes a mere 3% of the scoring pie.)
The winners of this year’s Solar Decathlon deserve our congratulations, but they and other teams would do well to remember that this competition is not about designing the most sustainable house; merely the most appropriate and market-worthy house that utilizes solar power in order to maintain a middle-class, appliance-powered standard of living. If this competition doesn’t hit the “sweet spot” in this sense (despite its many positive contributions), perhaps other decathlons are in order. How about a Wind Decathlon, a Water Decathlon, or a Materials Decathlon? While we’re at it, how about a Cradle-to-Cradle Decathlon, a Living Machine Decathlon, or an Anti-Consumption Decathlon? What kinds of designs would these competitions inspire, and how might we evaluate them differently?