WASHINGTON – Solar panels,fingerprint scanners,rain screens,microcapsules of paraffin that change from solid to liquid to save energy and a touch-screen circuitry interface are not typical amenities of a college house.
Then again,the 20 modern homes sandwiched on the National Mall are anything but typical – except maybe for that bright orange hot tub.
The Department of Energy's third Solar Decathlon began Friday on the National Mall,with teams representing universities across the U.S.,Canada,Puerto Rico,Spain and Germany. Teams must “design,finance,construct and operate the most energy-efficient homes imaginable,” according to the Energy Department.
In the opening ceremony Friday,Secretary of Energy Sam Bodman said he admired the students' ability to “harness the power of the sun” in their creative entries. Forty teams applied for the contest,last held in 2005 and 2002,and 20 teams earned a chance to showcase their buildings in Washington.
“These houses are marvels of engineering and design,” Bodman said,commending the teams for making it to the Mall.
For the hundreds of students involved,the process has lasted more than a year,from design specifications to constructing the house on campus and,finally,transporting it to Washington. That last step caused more trouble for some teams than others.
The 24 students representing the Polytechnic University of Darmstadt had to place the three sections of their “Made in Germany” house on ships five weeks before the competition was slated to begin,said Manfred Hegger,a Darmstadt professor in energy-efficient building.
“We had a lot to do here,” Hegger said. But he still has high hopes for his team's chances of taking the prize back to Germany,particularly in the design competition.
“This is a house – not a solar exhibition,” he said of the modern,modular German home.
Through this week,teams will compete in 10 individual events,ranging from architecture to a cook-off to showcase the houses' functionality. An overall winner will be announced at the closing ceremony Friday.
As of Monday afternoon,Darmstadt held the top spot on the leader board,followed by the University of Maryland,Polytechnic University of Madrid,the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Cincinnati.
The University of Colorado at Boulder will try to win its third straight Solar Decathlon with its house,which is actually just part of a larger structure that could house a family of four.
“All of the teams have their eye on Colorado,” said David Bowers,a member of the University of Texas at Austin team. He said that even tops the rivalry with the Texas A&M team a few houses down the block,a traditional athletic foe.
The Texas “Bloom” house quickly became known for the bright orange hot tub on the deck,which Bowers explained was more comfortable than it looked.
Bernardo Menezes,a senior engineering student at Cornell University,also has his sights on the returning champions. He was on Cornell's 2005 team that placed a “close second.” Menezes said he hopes to win this year with some added help from landscape architecture students and hotel administration students.
“We've been gunning for them,” he said.
Instead of placing solar panels directly onto the roof of the Cornell house,the design employs a canopy of photo-voltaic panels that can be easily removed or retrofitted to other houses. Menezes said the touch-screen monitor near the front of the house that controls all of the circuitry could also give them an edge.
Other schools,such as University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Cincinnati,will compete in their first Solar Decathlon. Both teams learned some valuable lessons early in the competition.
“It's more than adding solar panels to your home,” said Na Wang,the chief architect of the U.I. team's house. Students eventually settled on a long,cedar-colored home with small windows after considering the landscape,marketability and overall energy efficiency.
The Reform team from Cincinnati went for a different sort of aesthetic. While most of the homes utilized solid earth-tone blocks for the exterior,Cincinnati created a mosaic of multi-colored aluminum panels.
“You love it or hate it,” said Christopher Davis,a project manager and recent graduate.
All of the houses will be open for visitors through Saturday,though they will be closed Wednesday for part of the competition.