The Solar Decathlon’s Legacy

Another chapter of the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon has come to a close. This year saw the Stevens Institute of Technology team, entering with their SURE HOUSE, take top honors overall while also winning many of the individual contests including the coveted architecture and engineering categories. If you’re not familiar with the Solar Decathlon, see our previous post on my experience with the 2011 contest here.

The Stevens house focused a large portion of its design approach on structural and infrastructural resiliency in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The college is personally familiar with the devastation of the 2012 storm as it lies on the west bank of the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ, directly in the path of Sandy and other mid-Atlantic storms and nor’easters. The energy plan for the house emphasizes reduced energy use through high-efficiency building materials and appliances such as its robust envelop design and energy recovery systems amounting to an R-40 annual heat loss design. As communities continue to rethink their approaches to building concepts with respect to storm resistance, we’ll very likely see some of the design principles in SURE HOUSE influencing planners and designers.

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SURE House (Image courtesy of Stevens Institute of Technology)

But this is just one promising example of the advanced ideas present at the Solar Decathlon with the potential of making the jump from concept to commercial realization. With all the forward thinking that’s come out of past competitions, it’s actually quite common to look back at past entries and see, what were at the time, untested concepts that have since progressed toward commercial implementation. Many of the design concepts and inspiration behind the now-widespread ‘tiny house’ craze can be traced back to ideas that were forged or proven during past Solar Decathlons including: novel uses (reuses, really) for shipping containers, and dynamic structural elements such as moveable walls that allow the interior space to transform when the occasion calls for it. But aside from the incredible shrinking house, here’s a couple new technologies borne out of past Decathlons that have potential application in a much broader range of design for physical space.

In the 2011 competition, the Ohio State University team developed an innovative new approach to home HVAC and water heating with its integrated energyhawc prototype combining aspects of air conditioning, heating, water heating, ventilation, and dehumidification into a single unified system. Since 2011, the protoype has been continuously developed for subsequent competitions, an OSU capstone course, and now an emerging commercial product being brought to market.  energyhawc touts a SEER rating of 24 and boasts operational savings of 40% over equivalent code standard equipment amounting to a quicker payback period with greater environmental savings as well.

Similarly, the 2007 University of Maryland LEAFHouse (full disclosure, I was a team member, so I’m partial to this one!) developed a novel application of a dehumidification system with a liquid desiccant mechanism at its heart. The system used a partially exposed liquid desiccant waterfall to pull moisture from the air inside the house and trap it in the desiccant solution thereby reducing the massive conditioning loads on the HVAC system that are especially prevalent during summer and fall in the mid-Atlantic area. UMD explored this concept further in 2011 with their Watershed house where the HVAC team improved on the design by integrating a highly attractive chamber filled with plastic column packing spheres to increase the liquid-air reaction times for increased performance. The technology is patent pending and a new business has been formed to bring the product to market.

Watershed liquid desiccant wall (Image Courtesy of Stefano Paltera/US Department of Energy)

Watershed liquid desiccant wall (Image Courtesy of Stefano Paltera/US Department of Energy)

Since its inaugural contest in 2002, the competition has spurred Solar Decathlons Europe, starting in 2010, and more recently Solar Decathlon China in 2013. As the competitions and technologies continue to evolve, there’s no doubt that we’ll start to see even more novel engineering and architectural concepts reach widespread adoption.

About Evan Merkel

Evan Merkel is a Renewable Energy Engineer from Baltimore, MD. He loves the smell of PV in the morning. He can be contacted at


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