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MADRID -- Part 1 of 2: Check out the homes of the future -- solar, foldable, breathable, and one with nature -- at the 2012 Solar Decathlon.

MADRID -- What began in 1999 as a competition among the United States' top university minds to raise awareness of solar energies has become a hardcore international race to build the most self-sustaining home.

The biannual European Solar Decathlon is the perfect blend of blue and white collars as teams of architectural, engineering and design students spend two years planning before they have to put down their pencils and CAD software and pick up hammers, as they build and then rebuild their homes of the future.

Each house is under 200 meters squared, with a minimum of 1.2-meter spaces for wheelchair accessibility. Each must be entirely self-sustained on solar energy, which is easy on these cloudless Madrid days. Not only must the house be heated or cooled and the lights work, but all creature comforts, like ovens, washing machines and TVs much work, excepting the plumbing, which would be too big a challenge to install in just the first two weeks of September.

The Solar Decathlon houses are scored by experts based on ten areas: architecture, engineering and construction, energy efficiency, electrical balance, quantitative comfort conditions, functioning of the house, communication and raising social awareness, industrialization and market viability, innovation, and sustainability over the house's lifetime. The houses are monitored throughout the ten days of the competition, along with added spot checks. In addition, visitors -- there were more than 200,000 at the 2010 decathlon -- can vote for their favorites, with live updates online.

The wallless, counter entropy house

Students at Rwth Aachen University in Germany took the competition a step further to assign themselves an eleventh perimeter. "Our house has a particular focus on energy saving in the materials," says 24-year-old Till de Graaff. He says that one of the overlooked construction theme is how much CO2 and other pollutants are released in the making of and transporting of construction materials. The planning concentrated on using nearly un-reusable materials, making their house "counter entropy," using pure materials and creating zero emission during the whole process. The facade of the house is made waterproof and soundproof though the melting of old CDs, extending the lifespan of this soon-to-be obsolete product. Till says most facades are made of polycarbonate material and that the Counter Entropy team "just bakes them together and gets almost the same" result. The floors look slightly burnt and imperfect, but that's because they are the made out of wood from the city of Aachen's local soccer club's previous stadium. Even their informative flier can be refolded into a pencil holder.

Till pointed out that the idea of making a project out of reusable materials is nothing new, using the construction of the New Dehli slums as an obvious example. To challenge themselves even more, this German team then decided to create a totally open house. The walls are glass and can fully retract. The walls move around and all the furniture can be stored back into the house. Each section is adjustable for the needs at the moment. For example, the kitchen walls and ceilings push back to create more cooking and lighting space when working in that part of the house.

The house of the people

While the size of the houses -- under 195 meters squared -- and means of energy -- mainly solar -- is relatively the same, the expected market value of these homes are very different. The estimated price of the homes, once industrialized, have a broad range from 70,000 to 250,000 euros. This is not including Brazil's contestant, which didn't provide their estimate, but cited their production cost was 450,000 euros, though most team's production cost is nearly double their industrialized cost.

For the students at the Bucharest Polytechnic University, the cost was the most important factor, as they were trying to create "low-budget innovation, by finding alternatives to expensive systems and creating one of the most accessible solar houses." The Romanian government has a first-time homebuyer program that will give out loans to those that are trying to buy low-cost, sustainable homes. Team Prispa's house's market value is 70,000 euros. It's based on the "traditional Romanian architecture of simple lines, (focusing on) the transition space between the building and nature, and between home privacy and public exposure," says 23-year-old architecture student Anca Bolohan. She says they made sure natural sunlight could flow into every room, and that it still looks like a typical house, as the Romanians are wary of technology. "It's not aggressive. It's supposed to be comfortable, affordable and low maintenance," she says.

The south side of the home is slanted and covered with 32 Photovoltaic (PV) panels, while two more traditional solar panels are used as water heaters. Fighting hot summers and colder winters, the walls are made of clay to absorb and give back natural heat and humidity.

Anca is also the team's event planner, as they did not immediately receive a lot of government and university support for the cost of materials, house shipping and travel for the team. It seems to be worth the effort, though, as their house is already sold, ready for delivery, directly following the decathlon. "We didn't want to build a pavilion, we wanted to build a home," Anca says, excited to rebuild the house as soon as they get back on their homeland.

The foldable house

By the examples in this competition, you would think the home of the future is a studio. Many of the houses don't use walls to divide rooms, trading plaster for wall-sized windows, flooding the homes with natural light and allowing for passive cross ventilation. From a design standpoint, the open floorplans allows limitless rearranging of furniture.

The Technical University of Denmark truly embraces this idea with their FOLD house. The walls of this house are nearly paper-thin plywood, 86 millimeters (about three inches) thick. This higher-scale house, predicted to sell for 212,000 euros, features its own thin-film solar cells that cover a hot water system along the roof, providing nearly twice the necessary electricity and hot water. Traditional floor heating panels line both the floor and ceiling in order to both heat and convert that heating into cooling power. This must work because on the incredibly hot weekend SmartPlanet visited, the Danish house was the coolest inside.

The plan is for FOLD to be a vacation home that could be built in a week, all the pieces folding up to fit easily onto trucks.

The rapid, Mediterranean house

To the group of Roman universities making up the MED team, the goal was creating a home to be sold to the Mediterranean markets of Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the "Near East." They say that, following their Holy Roman Empirical roots, a MED house is defined as ready to defend from intruders, very enclosed, walled in, with only one entrance. With the warm winters and hot summers, the architecture is around a large patio within the barrier of the home.

Traditionally, Mediterranean homes are "heavy houses," made of stone or masonry, which would be very expensive to move from Italy to the competition site. Instead, they built layered wood walls that they lined with PVC pipes that they then filled with sand. These pipes remain very cool to the touch. They've also had a giant fish painted along the main wall that runs through all the rooms along the house, to both discourage the hanging of art and photographs, which makes the radiant panels and heating and cooling systems less efficient, and to automatically light the house, as the paint is made of photo-luminous (glow-in-the-dark) sand.

To the MED team, the house of the future produces all its own energy and then some. It also focuses on "cost reduction, performance optimization and construction time reduction." Like the Danish house, the materials are light and thin and can be fit into a traditional railway car, cutting down on both the cost of transporting the house and its cost to the environment.

This decathlon has a particular focus on attracting the youth voters. The MED team held a school contest to design a mascot, who ended up to be "G-ecko-logical," -- an eco-friendly gecko that helps kids learn about the MED house, while completing a maze and wearing a button with the mascot on him.

Tradition meets an earthquake-proof future

This Japanese house is named Omotenashi, which means "thoughtfully and sincerely conveying a feeling of consideration to those you encounter." In every way, this house sees the blending of Japanese tradition -- from paper walls and bamboo gardens to its hosting of tea-pouring ceremonies -- with modern Japan's love of the newest technology. It is the only house that goes beyond just being sustainable energy-wise, by making the effort to produce its own food during the competition. In an effort to bring agriculture to the cities and suburbs, it is a "plant factory," with small plant incubators in the kitchen, fencing lined with fresh herbs, and fruit and vegetable gardens.

"If a house is open, the people are more open," says Chiba University PhD student Angel Mora. He says, "The first design was quite crazy because we wanted to show a lot of technology," but that they went to disguise that technology because "otherwise, the Japanese society is just losing their house," an important part of their cultural identity.

Omotenashi is built flat so that the house can withstand the addition of up to three more houses on top of it. In addition, the house is strong, being able to resist damage in earthquakes measuring nine or lower on the Richter scale. Remember also, unlike its competitors, the Japanese team had an extra challenge of having to literally ship their house to Spain, but this did give them the advantage of being able to bring it here in just one piece.

A solar-powered city

Each of the 19 houses gathered in Casa de Campo is connected to the same micro smart grid, an electricity distribution network that measures all control flows of power generation and consumption. The Schneider Electric Network can manage about 180,000 kilowatts in a year, claiming to save 180 tons of CO2 emissions. In their planned estimations of power usage and generation, only the University of the Basque Country, from the north of Spain, says its house would consume more energy than it can produce. The majority of houses expect to produce at least double what they will use.

The smart grid will collect any extra energy produced within this 17-day competition and will filter it right into Madrid's electrical grid, hopefully cutting our September gastos a bit.

Stay tuned tomorrow for Part Two as we continue to talk about the competition and to see what some other students -- from France, China, Hungary, and the host nation of Spain -- have built.

Photos: Jennifer K. Riggins

Jennifer Riggins

Correspondent (Barcelona)

Jennifer Riggins is the content manager and community builder for two SaaS Quote Roller and PandaDoc, as well as she teaches sales, English, and public speaking for Spanish small business. She holds a degree from William Paterson University. She is based in Spain. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure