The Future of Solar

Irvine hosted the Department of Energy’s sixth biannual Solar Decathlon and XPO at the Great Orange County Park last weekend beginning on Thursday, Oct. 3.

The Solar Decathlon is a competition that challenges teams of college students from around the world to build solar-powered homes. The XPO, on the other hand, is an exposition featuring solar products and guest speakers from the alternative and green energy industries. It included events such as Formula SAE racing, in which competitors could only use one gallon of a certain fuel, and guest speakers from the alternative and green energy industries.

This year marked the first time that this event was hosted outside of Washington, D.C.

“I am pleased that the competition has moved to Southern California as opposed to Washington D.C. because I feel that the people here will appreciate what we’re doing,” Mary Lihn Chamber, director of volunteers, said.

The Decathlon was host to 19 collegiate teams as they competed to create the most energy-efficient home with a target construction and transportation budget of approximately $250,000. This year’s competition featured 19 houses built by teams of students spanning from Southern California to the Czech Republic.

All of the homes were made specifically for the competition and served as examples for future sustainable development. Every house featured solar panels to power the home with renewable energy as well as energy efficient appliances. However, architectural choices varied among teams depending on different requirements of the houses’ unique purposes.

A team of Kentucky and Indiana students kept the region’s disastrous tornadoes, specifically one that destroyed Henryville and killed five people in 2012, in mind during the design process of Phoenix House.

Zack Kendall, an architecture alumnus from Ball State University explained, “We were spitballing ideas when an F4 tornado hit southern Indiana and we decided that we could base our project around the relief.”

In addition to building an efficient home that was powered by solar panels, the home also features a reinforced safe room in case of a natural disaster and a foldable roof so as to allow rapid transportation of the house to other parts of the country. Kendal and many others on the team hoped that houses similar to the Phoenix House will be adopted by FEMA and act as more permanent housing solutions for disaster victims, as opposed to the temporary housing that FEMA provides such as in the case of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina, who were given trailers after they were evacuated from New Orleans.

While the design philosophy of Phoenix House revolved around natural disasters, bamboo was the foundational design element behind the University of Santa Clara’s Radiant House, following the 2009 and 2007 houses, the latter being the first use of structural bamboo in the United States.

According to Radiant House’s Brian Grau, structural bamboo has many advantages over traditional lumber including better sustainability due to its extremely rapid growth-to-harvest cycle (compared to the 40-year cycle for lumber) and allowing developing countries in which bamboo grows heavily to not only use bamboo in construction but also as a profitable export.

At the time of this writing, the Santa Clara team is in second place, approximately three points behind Team Capitol DC.

Judges critiqued the houses based on 10 categories, including cost efficiency, engineering, comfort, aesthetics and affordability. Guests of the Decathlon are able to vote for their favorite houses on the Decathlon website. The house with the most popular votes will win the People’s Choice Award at the end of the competition.

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

The Decathlon and XPO are closed to the public Oct. 7-9 and will reopen Oct. 10-13. The winner of the Decathlon will be announced at 10 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 12. Admission is free.