Decoding Design

Solar Decathlon encourages designs within financial reach

Posting in Design

Nineteen university teams, vying for the 2011 Solar Decathlon title, have worked affordability into their designs.

The U.S. Department of Energy tries to tease out some of the academic world's best design and technology acumen through its biennial Solar Decathlon. The university-led teams (there are 19, from all over the world, currently competing) spend nearly two years designing, building and operating creating houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.

The teams are rated on 10 different contest topics, such as comfort (consistent temperature and humidity levels) and engineering, which rates the innovation and reliability of the designs, among other elements. This year, the lighting design contest was replaced by an affordability contest.

While affordability has also been a valued attribute in the decathlon, this year marks the first time the total cost of each house has been closely measured and the first time teams vie for a full 100 points (the quantity of each contest, for a total possible decathlon score of 1000) based only on affordability.

So often, good design and low costs are at opposite sides of the spectrum. But they don't need to be -- and many would argue design that's not within economic reach of most consumers isn't good design, at all.

Sure, a home that is so energy-efficient and energy-generative that it nears zero-net-energy status will pay for itself (and then some) over time. But if solar-powered homes are ever going to move beyond pilot stage and niche markets and into the mainstream -- especially given the bad rap that the Solyndra scandal has left on the solar market -- designers need to hone in on affordability.

Philadelphia's Postgreen Homes has proven affordability, design and extreme efficiency can live together in its 100K Project House, in which it developed a LEED Platinum-certified, 1,150 square foot house, designed by Interface Studio Architects, for $100,000.

The Solar Decathlon set the financial bar higher: Each team that could hit a target construction cost of $250,000 or less would earn 100 points. Certainly, that's still an expensive home by most Americans' standards, but the energy savings will, presumably, provide a return over time.

Only two of the teams were able to reach the affordability standard: Parsons The New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology -- the current 4th place team -- built its Empowerhouse for less than $230,000. And Purdue University, the team currently in the lead with its INhome, just made the cut, coming in barely less than $250,000.

Hopefully next year more teams will bring their construction costs down -- without sacrificing aesthetics -- and help bring solar homes closer within reach of more consumers. But how does one design for affordability? Let us know what you think.

Photo: Parsons New School/Stevens Institute for Technology's Empowerhouse Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure