Mind & Matter


Alternative Decathlons

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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?



Comments (2 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:26 AM Monday, October 19, 2009

    You're right--it is a little disheartening to see that the decathlon houses all have full home entertainment systems (that they must self-power). I guess that's necessary to meet market demand, but what does it say about Americans' willingness to live more sustainably?

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 11:16 AM Monday, October 19, 2009

    Another important factor is the cost that the teams put into building these little experiments. Besides transportation and housing of the teams for the event, which constitute a significant expense, the projects seem to get more expensive every year, from what I have heard. As small as these project houses are, they still seem to be well beyond the reach of the average homeowner, making them seem far more fanciful and far less accessible to the average person. There should certainly be room for innovation that will become more affordable once it enters the mainstream, but will an average American viewing the houses on the Mall understand that, or just think this is more out-of-touch architecture?

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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.