The 2015 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is under way at the Orange County Great Park (formerly El Toro Marine Corps Air Station) in Irvine, Calif., but not all of the teams were ready for the opening ceremony. Out of an original roster of 20 teams, this year’s contest features 14 houses—six teams dropped out for lack of funding—of which roughly half were still under construction during the preview day, and two were still building when the Solar Decathlon opened to the public on October 8.
In this year's Solar Decathlon, the seventh iteration of the biennial competition started by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2002, teams addressed issues of extreme weather with responsive homes that can withstand tornadoes, floods, and drought conditions through their respective designs.
Students from Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, N.J., were preparing for the 2013 Solar Decathlon when Hurricane Sandy devastated the region. For this year's Solar Decathlon, the Stevens team chose to respond to the threat of coastal flooding during major storms with SURE House, which can withstand floodwaters up to five feet, thanks to innovative storm shutters that borrow technology from the marine industry. When not in use for flood prevention, the storm shutters shade a wall of sliding glass doors, and photovoltaic panels mounted to the shutters capture solar energy.
The team from University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, designed GRoWHome, a house designed with the urban gardener in mind. The 770-square-foot, one bedroom, one bathroom house features a glass-enclosed greenhouse for year-round vegetable production.
Crowder College and Drury University combined forces in ShelteR³, a 973-square-foot, two bedroom house designed with the philosophies respond, recover, and resist. The multi-layered wall and window systems bolster the house against tornadoes.
One of the longest-running critiques of the Solar Decathlon is that the competition focuses around detached, single-family homes, which do little to address issues of density and urban development. But Team Texas/Germany, comprised of students from The University of Texas at Austin and Technische Universität München, combined to create NexusHaus, a modular home built to respond to Austin's need for densification. Reconfigurable modules allow variations on the NexusHaus to plug in holes in the city's fabric in the form of Additional Dwelling Units (ADUs) that infill underutilized lots. An open-air walkway between the living modules forms a breezeway that opens to a generous outdoor patio that draws natural ventilation through the house.
Where some teams struggled was in bringing renderings to reality. An ambitious design for a stackable, modular, single-family dwelling from New York College of Technology, DURA Home, was still in progress at the opening, less several panels and seemingly with open seams on the exterior; and the beautifully-rendered arch of the STILE House—a joint effort by Team West Virginia/Rome (West Virginia University and University of Roma Tor Vergata)—was slightly rougher around the edges than the soft rendering the team generated prior to the competition. The most visually striking solar arrays of the competition suffered in execution of construction details at the micro scale.
Overall, the 2015 Solar Decathlon continues to promote ideas of sustainable living for the general public, whose numbers are expected to reach 100,000 by the end of the competition. Visitors seemed fascinated by products like the denim insulation of Missouri University of Science and Technology's Nest Home, which also featured shipping containers clad in reclaimed shipping pallet wood. Inquisitive homeowners seeking out new ways to save energy, reclaim water, or batten down the hatches will find plenty to learn in Orange County.