- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

As prices for gas and heating fuel continue to climb, energy-saving homes are back in the spotlight. Now open for inspection on the Mall are 18 ecologically conscious model houses designed and built by college students from across the country, plus teams from Puerto Rico, Spain and Canada. Each house, complete with working kitchen and water-running bathroom, is designed to be powered by the sun without relying on conventionally supplied electricity or gas.

The Department of Energy is sponsoring the eco-village to promote awareness of energy-efficient technologies, following a similar event staged in 2002. Called the Solar Decathlon, the 10-day display involves a competition among teams of students whose houses will be judged by a panel of experts on the basis of design, livability and energy efficiency. The winner will be announced Friday.

Judging from these contemporary cabins, sun-powered architecture is now more attractive and livable than it was in the 1970s when President Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof. Back then, energy-efficient building required thick walls, small windows and stuck-on gadgets — and was as ugly as a pair of platform shoes.

In contrast, the solar houses on the Mall show that energy-saving architecture can be elegant, whimsical and inspiring. These imaginative model houses, many resembling upscale trailers, work off the grid in terms of residential design as well as energy consumption.

Among the most striking is a minimalist, polycarbonate-clad box with solar panels concealed in a wing-shaped roof built by a team from Virginia Tech. Another is the sculptural shed shaped by students from three Pittsburgh schools to follow the angle of the sun’s rays.

Also unconventional is the house designed by young architects and engineers from the University of Michigan, who looked to their state’s automotive industry for inspiration. Mounted on a chassis so it can be hauled by truck, the curved aluminum structure looks like a big Airstream trailer.

Many of the students spent years learning about the latest energy-conserving technologies before sketching their designs and coming to Washington to build them. Their enthusiasm and optimism can be felt throughout this informative demonstration project, which, sadly, is only on display for little more than a week — not an encouraging sign that DOE is truly serious about promoting alternative energy sources.

While inventive, these homes illustrate the depressing reality that solar power is still expensive and out of the mainstream. The biggest change from the Carter era is that clumsy, thick solar panels have evolved into thinner, more reliable photovoltaic cells that harness the sun’s light, rather than its heat, to produce electricity. Currently, the most common application of photovoltaic or PV technology is in solar-powered calculators.

The solar houses on the Mall exhibit various ways of mounting photovoltaics as panels on walls and roofs, or affixed as a film to a window. To be effective, however, the PV cells must face due south on an unshaded surface. That’s easy to do on the spacious, open center of the Mall, but more difficult in a dense, urban neighborhood or tree-lined suburban street.

Photovoltaic technology isn’t cheap. To power a house off the grid like the students on the Mall are doing, the typical homeowner would have to spend at least from about $30,000 to $40,000, according to John Spears, an energy consultant in Gaithersburg, Md. Just one PV panel can cost $1,200 to $1,500, according to several student participants in the Decathlon, who took advantage of donated equipment and materials to build their expensive, off-the-grid houses.

Mr. Spears suggests a more cost-effective way to conserve energy is to install high-performance windows and insulation and a solar water heating system before investing in photovoltaics. Although they are much less apparent than the solar arrays, many such energy-conserving measures are demonstrated in the student-built houses, including triple-pane windows and walls insulated with wheat straw and soy-based foams.

Downsizing may be an easier way to save energy, suggest the diminutive homes on the Mall. Each of the one-story dwellings measures 500 to 800 square feet in size, about as big as an efficiency or tiny one-bedroom apartment. Even so, most are organized with space-efficient layouts that make them feel bigger.

Inside the houses are the upscale amenities now popular in suburban subdivisions: home offices, bamboo floors, stainless-steel appliances and flat-screen TVs — along with energy-storing batteries, low-voltage lighting and low-flush toilets.

The small student-built homes may also represent another consumer trend — the waning of the suburban McMansion. After decades of expansion, the size of a new detached house now averages 2,400 square feet and shows few signs of growing larger, according to the Census Bureau.

Whether single-family homes start to incorporate many of the energy-saving measures now being demonstrated on the Mall remains to be seen. In the meantime, this utopian solar village offers plenty of ideas for those willing to spend the cash.

WHAT: “2005 Solar Decathlon”

WHERE: Mall near the Smithsonian Institution Building and Smithsonian Metro stop.

WHEN: Through Oct. 16; weekdays 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., weekends and Oct. 10 (Columbus Day) 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

TICKETS: Free admission

WEB SITE: www.solardecathlon.org

10 Solar Decathlon heats this weekThis week, teams of students participating in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon on the Mall will compete in 10 contests aimed at determining the effectiveness of their energy-saving home designs, from the architecture to the lights and appliances. Here are some suggested categories — and winners.

Most elegant: A team from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University topped a simple, streamlined box with an uplifting, wing-shaped roof reminiscent of the Washington Dulles International Airport terminal. Facades clad in translucent polycarbonate panels with automatic shades and heat-transferring dampers glow with colored light at night.

Most livable: Elevated above the ground to survive a flood or hurricane, the curved-back cabin designed by University of Maryland students feels comfortable and well planned. Built-in shelving, flat-screen TV and recycled glass tile in the kitchen and bath almost make you forget the home’s tiny size.

Most biodegradable: University of Colorado students call their house a “bio-ship” after its many nature-based elements, including soy-filled insulation, hemp countertops, bamboo cabinets, linseed-oil linoleum flooring and compressed sunflowers in the window sashes. “It’s a house you can sink your teeth into,” says engineering student Jeff Lyng.

Most experimental: From wheat straw insulation and a solar-powered sofa to a shipping container filled with batteries and hydrogen tanks, the house built by a team from New York Institute of Technology conveys a playful, Rube Goldberg-type of inventiveness.

Best garden: Cornell University students surrounded their crisply detailed, wooden box with a lushly planted moat of vegetables and edible flowers. “Being sustainable is not just about $80,000 worth of solar panels,” says horticulture student Lucas Wooster. “It’s about using landscape to grow your own food.”

Best view: Students from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo positioned their red-and-gray-paneled dwelling on the Mall so the window over the kitchen sink perfectly frames a view of the Capitol dome.

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