Solar Decathlon 2011: Tell Me to What You Pay Attention and I'll Tell You Who You Are

By Eric Owen Moss, Director Southern California Institute of Architecture; Principle Eric Owen Moss Architects

"Tell me to what you pay attention and i'll tell you who you are." ~ Spanish proverb

For the fifth time in the last 10 years, competing student teams from twenty universities, including four from outside America, are inventing compact, efficient new housing types powered by sophisticated alternative energy applications.

Aptly labeled America's Solar Decathlon, the teams agreed to participate in an exhibition of new technical acumen based on the Energy Department's promise to exhibit the model houses on the Mall in Washington DC, as has been the custom in the four previous renditions of this "re-invent our housing future" event.

All good, you say?

Substantiates the President's State of the Union call for a new American Sputnik response, you say?

Confirms the President's insistence on a re-emphasis of education in the sciences, new technologies, energy conservation, and the capacity to reconstitute America's decaying infrastructure, you say?


Sadly, none of the above.

Instead, retreating on its promise to install the mini-houses on the Mall this September, a year and a half into a design and construction process, the Department of the Interior and its surrogate, the Department of Energy, has pulled the Solar plug on the promised Mall site, in the name of the Interior Department's "save the grass" campaign [which begins in 2012].

Meantime an International Book Fair that gathers about three times the attendees as the Solar Decathlon event, goes forward, as planned on that same Mall.

Book Fair dates? That's right. September 2011.

Never mind that the student teams are contractually bound to restore any damaged area on the Mall.

Never mind that Solar Decathlon 5 has been preceded by Solar Decathlons 1 - 4, all extremely well attended, all on the Mall.

Never mind that a substantial number of United States Senators and Representatives have signed on in support of the continuance of the Mall exhibit.

Never mind that the DOE has contradicted its own agreement that was the premise for the original participation of the young student teams.

And never mind that neither the Department of the Interior nor the Department of Energy will face any public questioning at all.

In the end, hard working teams of intelligent, dedicated students committed to re-imagining a changed role for housing and energy technology in America are simply asked to acquiesce in the face of a faceless government authority that, for its own reasons, seems to have reversed the essential new priorities propounded days ago by the President himself.

As many around the world have recently demonstrated, the voice of government authority is not synonymous with the voice of change.

The Portrait of the Politician as a Young Lady

By Elisabeth Neigert, Project Manager, SCI-Arc/Caltech Solar Decathlon 2011 Team

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sent out a call to action to University students worldwide - we all competed rigorously to land one of the coveted 20 positions for the Solar Decathlon 2011.

The day we were accepted was monumental.


It was the honor of bringing our built ideas to the National Mall, to be displayed between the Capitol and the National Monument.

Anticipating the moment when the sun comes up over the Capitol and our model home is illuminated on the National Mall made it all worthwhile.

Placing the exhibit on the National Mall confirms that Renewable Energy research is a priority worthy of an international platform. Two years of intensive research alongside 19 other teams - including Belgium, China, New Zealand, and Canada comes to fruition in the national spotlight.

Then suddenly the game changed.

On January 11, 2011, the 20 teams are disinvited from the Mall venue. The National Park Service and Department of Interior (specifically Secretary Salazar) booted the Solar Decathlon Competition off the National Mall citing the prospect of damage to the grass.

Damage to the grass? There's a contract between each university team and the DOE. The language explicitly holds each team responsible for repairing any damage it might cause to the grounds. The grounds are protected - the argument invalid.

Confused? One agency called us to action. We came. Another yanked the rug out.

Do they not speak?

The solution to the alleged maintenance problem is addressed in their contract.

Where is Secretary Chu?

Eighteen days later, President Obama issues another call to action in the State of the Union, "We're telling America's scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we'll fund the Apollo projects of our time."

I'm convinced the politicos don't speak to one another.

As a Project Manager of the SCI-Arc/Caltech Solar Decathlon Team, I am leading a team of engineers and architects that will change the world - if allowed.

Next step? Lobby to get us back on the Mall. Senator Menendez and Congressman Markey gather a group of supporting senators and congressmen. The NAHB, SEIA, AIA and HPBCCC become advocates. The Washington Post and countless media outlets give us a platform.

But despite all the powerful and reasoned support for the exhibits return to the Mall, and the illogic of the Department of Energy's and Department of Interior's position the status remains quo.

We're off the Mall.

We find ourselves fighting the very government that called us to action. We answered their call. We stood up as leaders. Now we ask them to follow through on their promise to spotlight green energy, affordable housing, and education on the center stage of our Nation's Capitol.


Stand Up for Innovative Housing.

Stand Up for Clean Energy.

Call your Congressmen.

Call the White House.

Forward our video appeal until our message runs rampant:

We have the solutions.

Let us share them on the Mall.