Last week an opening ceremony kicked off the Solar Decathlon in sunny Irvine, California. While the crowd listened to the major sponsors of the event welcome us, we heard excitement and anticipation in their voices. After all, this has been an event two years in the making.

Usually held in Washington, D.C., the mayor of Irvine, Steven Choi, was proud to welcome this international event to his home. “Even though the federal government is shut down, the Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is very much alive in Irvine,” he exclaimed. And aside from the Secretary of Energy, Ernest Moniz, only making an appearance via video, there was nothing else amiss.

The Solar Decathlon is a competition that challenges collegiate teams to design and build energy-efficient houses powered with solar energy. Nineteen total teams have successfully assembled their homes on site at Orange County’s Great Park—9 of which have participated in a Solar Decathlon before. They will show off their homes to the public and to various judges over the next 10 days, proving the worth of their entries in 10 different categories. The 10 competitions they will partake in are as follows:  

  1. Architecture
  2. Market Appeal
  3. Engineering
  4. Communications
  5. Affordability
  6. Comfort Zone
  7. Hot Water
  8. Appliances
  9. Home Entertainment
  10. Energy Balance

While all of the categories are relevant to the housing industry and the (hopefully) mass market of new, energy-efficient homes, there are a few that stood out to me while I toured the homes: affordability and market appeal.

Because affordability is a factor in the judging, all of the homes are required to be available at $250,000 or less. That doesn’t mean, however, that homes here don’t cost more than that—it means, rather, that homes that are higher are deducted points. While touring, I was in a home that costs $350,000 and one that costs $165,000. Both were pretty amazing in their own way. The philosophy of the $165,000 Delta T-90 home, built by Norwich University (pictured at left), is that they can offer an affordable home with a base price that’s suitable for various families. There are, of course, opportunities for homeowners to upgrade, by adding tile in the kitchen for example, which would allow them to both customize their home and give it the amenities they prefer. The higher priced homes, on the other hand, come with those flashy amenities and systems that get people to buy. And once they do, the energy efficiency is built in.

That leads me into market appeal. There are some crazy homes here, including one that literally sits on tracks and moves to give homeowners a yard or patio space in the middle of their house. The Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology’s DALE (Dynamic Augmented Living Environment) home has also got built-in hammocks and adjustable walls for every room. (See photo, right.) It’s impressive. People have been gawking at it. But is this the kind of market appeal that will get homeowners to buy into energy efficiency? Maybe.

All of the entries here are stunning in their own ways. They are considerate, they have smart systems so that occupants don’t have to think about saving energy if they don’t want to, and they adapt to seasons and environments extremely well.

One of the homes that caught my attention today for adaptability is Stanford’s Start Home. They’ve come up with a model based around what they call a “core.” The core of the home is made up of essential systems: mechanical, electrical, and plumbing. These systems are stored in a pod-like space that can fit into various modular homes. Meaning you can order your core and adapt it to the size and layout of the home you prefer. I asked one of the engineers how easy it would be for a homeowner to receive their core and effectively do something with it. Because of the advanced, in-place systems, he said that any general contractor would be able to “hook it up” so that the home was working at its most efficient. It seems like a rather cool idea.

Not surprisingly, there is a ton of innovation here. A lot of young, bright minds working hard to change the face of the housing industry. It’s both extraordinary and inspiring. It’s the future.  

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Comment by Linda Wigington on October 14, 2013 at 10:31am

I love the idea of the building core - seems like that could be adapted to home renovation. Ideally it could also be used if you would incorporating an extra living unit within an existing home.

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