By Don Willlmott
What will American homes look like the future? Why not ask architecture students? After all, they'll be the ones designing them. Right now, teams of students from 16 universities are competing to design and build cost-effective solar-powered homes--and your tax dollars are helping to urge them on.
The US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 is a biennial contest in which student teams don't just dream up the home of the future, they also build it, then dismantle it and ship it to the contest site, where it is rebuilt and judged. The two-year process culminates this year at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California from October 8 through October 18.
The entry from California State University, Sacramento (Source: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)
The competition is meant to serve as an inspiration not only to the students, but also to homeowners, who can learn how to save money and energy with clean energy products that are on the market now. The winning house will be the one that best achieves affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency. In fact, the contest gets its name from the ten categories in which each design is judged: Architecture, Market Appeal, Engineering, Communications, Affordability, Comfort Zone, Appliances, Home Life, Commuting, Energy Balance, and Livability.
Stevens Institute of Technology's SURE HOUSE, a sustainable, resilient house for coastal communities. (Source: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)
Judges ponder all sorts of criteria--including how well the design offers the intended occupants a safe, functional, convenient, comfortable, and enjoyable place to live--and how well the team uses sustainability features and strategies to make a positive contribution to the house's marketability. These aren't meant to be pie-in-the-sky dream palaces. They're supposed to sell with mass-market appeal. At least one team is so committed to affordability that it hopes its design can serve as a template for Habitat for Humanity.
The entry from the New York City College of Technology. Source: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)
Anyone looking for design inspiration, solar or otherwise, is invited to watch computer-animated walkthroughs of many of the designs, and many photos are also available for your perusal. You'll see a lot of sleek minimalism, sliding and retractable walls, smart window shades, automated skylights, and indoor/outdoor rooms. What a smart way to get students out of the classroom and into the real world, where their work can make a real impact.
Don Willmott is a New York-based journalist who writes about technology, travel and the environment for a wide variety of publications and websites.