Thousands of spectators visited the 20 student-designed homes on display Oct. 9-18 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to view the latest in sustainable and energy-efficient building strategies
Thousands of spectators visited the 20 student-designed homes on display Oct. 9-18 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. to view the latest in sustainable and energy-efficient building strategies
Virginia Tech's Lumenhaus had a strong nighttime presence with it's LED backlit façade of movable metal panels.
Virginia Tech's Lumenhaus had a strong nighttime presence with it's LED backlit façade of movable metal panels.

To say that the Solar Decathlon is impressive would be an understatement. The 10-day eventsponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy has grown exponentially in the course of just five years.Ingenuity, entrepreneurship, and commitment to a renewable future were all in evidence in the 20 student-designed homes on display Oct.9-18 on the National Mall in Washington,D.C. The time investment and resources put into these projects are considerable, and the process is actually a two-year endeavor that begins long before the houses arrive in Washington. For many teams this is not their first time participating in the by-selection-only event. This was the case for Virginia Tech. Its entry, Lumenhaus, is the most current iteration of design research on green building being conducted in the architecture and engineering programs at the school. Although the house did not place in the lighting contest, the design was the only one to have a nighttime presence with blue and green LEDs backlighting the façade of movable metal panels stamped with a perforated wave pattern.

When it comes to lighting, each of the houses took a different approach. As the title of the event indicates, all of the projects have an awareness about natural light and actively incorporate it into their designs. But when it comes to the integration of electric light it's a little bit more of a mixed bag. As this year's judges—lighting professionals Nancy Clanton, Ron Kurtz, and Naomi Miller—for the lighting portion of the decathlon noted, the teams that had lighting programs at their home institutions had a much better understanding of lighting and how to integrate it into the design of their houses. In making their evaluations for the lighting contest, the judges were looking for the projects that had a residential feel to their lighting strategy."We were looking for a layered approach,"says Kurtz, a design principal at St. Louis—based RandyBurkett Lighting Design. "That means non uniform illumination to break up the monotony of light."

There are no rules against consulting with lighting specialists in developing the lighting schemes for the homes, but as Sandra Stashik, principal at Philadelphia based lighting firm Grenald Waldron Associates and lighting judge for the 2005 and2007 decathlons, says, "While it is helpful for lighting designers to act as technical consultants, ultimately the lighting design needs to come from the students." In many cases, students eager to incorporate new technologies such as LEDs did so, but did so without fully understanding the source as well as the issues of color temperature, brightness, and glare. "They are just restating information that they have either read or a lighting adviser has relayed to them," Clanton says, who is president of Boulder, Colo.-based Clanton & Associates. Most of the teams were quick to point out that they had incorporated LEDs, which appeared to be the illumination source most commonly used in this year's group of entries.Very few teams incorporated other light sources, and when they did it was usually compact or linear fluorescent.

The lighting contest winners were not necessarily the teams anticipated to win based on the race for the overall competition. First place went to the Universityof Minnesota followed by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in second place, and a tie for third place between Penn State and Team Germany. "Team Minnesota had a nice variety of light sources, LED and fluorescent," Kurtz says. "It looked like a place you would want to live." The lighting jury was impressed with Illinois' exterior lighting and the subtle placement of light sources behind the planks of wood siding on the façade. The effect was simple but powerful as vertical accents of soft light added to the dimension of the building's elevations.The jury appreciated Penn State's use of accent light coupled with ambient light via a clerestory to create an even but layered effect. And even though Team Germany incorporated a dynamic use of LED lighting at night, coordinated into sophisticated color blocking, daylighting was Team Germany's real strength, as its entire façade was made out of luminous panels with embedded solar cells.

Other notable lighting schemes included Team Ontario/British Columbia's design of a double-layered interior/exterior shading system, and Team Boston's CurioHouse with a linear cove system of LEDarrays positioned adjacent to the window blinds to use the fabric as a reflective surface at night to provide additional ambient light.

Many of the houses will return to their campuses to serve as educational laboratories for sustainable design initiatives, and in a few cases the houses have been donated to communities to become permanent parts of larger affordable housing developments. Once again the Solar Decathlon shows the future of sustainability and innovative technologies is bright. For more details about the decathlon go to solardecathlon.org.