Competition Walk Through (Part 1)

By Owen Teach

The 2013 Solar Decathlon, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy Oct. 3-13 in Irvine, Calif., is a competition challenging 20 student teams from universities all around the world to construct the most affordable, reproducible, energy efficient and attractive solar-powered home.
Middlebury fields only one out of nine returning teams to the competition, which includes a diverse field of contestants ranging from Norwich University in Vermont to Czech Technical University in Prague.

While this year’s Middlebury team is, in large part, a new group of students constructing an entirely different home, why Middlebury received its second straight invitation to partake in the Decathlon was partly because of its strong performance in the 10 judged contests that make up the bulk of the competition. Officials judge the 20 houses in each of these 10 contests, with each contest score ranging between zero and 100 – totaling a final score out of a thousand (discounting any point deductions for rule violations). Middlebury’s 2011 entry in Washington, D.C. — the Self Reliance house, now located by the entry to the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts parking lot — surprised all of its competitors by posting a fourth-place finish, especially given that Middlebury was the only liberal arts college in the competition. Middlebury’s final score of 914.81 put it behind only the University of Maryland, Purdue University and Victoria University (from Wellington, New Zealand) in the final rankings, and received top marks in the Market Appeal, Communications and Home Entertainment categories.

In order to get a better idea of what exactly happens during the Decathlon, this week’s update will break down the first five competitions featuring some thoughts from past and current Middlebury Decathletes:

Contest 1: Architecture
A jury of architects reviews each team’s drawings, construction specifications and presentation through an on-site evaluation. A few components include incorporation of lighting, overall comfort and house connection.

Wyatt Komarin ’12: “The architecture contest is perhaps both the most prestigious and challenging category. With Self-Reliance, I think we were successful in that we took our team’s mission statement very seriously, using it as a guiding ‘thesis statement’ throughout the design process. We [applied it] at all scales of design, from the overall building form and landscape, all the way down to the plates on the dining table.”

Ellie Krause ’14: “As liberal arts students and as members of Middlebury College, we approach our decisions not only on a technical level but also considering their environmental and social implications. Some exciting features [in inSite] include: 1) The Solar Path: an elegant solution for homes without south-facing roofs and a place to shade competition-goers in line to tour our home. 2) The Green Roof: now that the solar panels are off of the roof it is open for alternate use, like plants! InSite is the first home in Solar Decathlon history to have a completely green roof! 3) The Exposed Steel Frame: In order to ship InSite across the country and minimize it’s carbon footprint the entire home needs to fit into train shipping containers – which means we need to build it out of panels. These panels are held together and supported by a steel frame that will be visible within the home and show visitors the story of how it was constructed. 4) The Siding: Amongst shiny plastic-covered homes, InSite will be sporting beautiful siding made of reclaimed barn wood from a farm just down the road.”

Contest 2: Market Appeal
A jury of homebuilding professionals considers the following three factors in giving this score: livability, marketability and buildability. Within these, components such as curb appeal, craftsmanship, value and ability to reproduce are considered.

Peter DiPrinzio ’13: “Market appeal is a tricky category because it is relative to the market you pick, which for us was a young, New England family of four. With a constraint of a 1,000-square foot house, we had a significantly tougher time designing for four rather than two or three, but we made sure every design decision fulfilled the needs of our target client: a family. Over and over, we heard kids and adults (even [President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz] and his family) on the National Mall say, “I think that I could live here.”

Cordy Newbury ’13: “When people walked into Self-Reliance throughout the competition, we would regularly hear people exclaim, “I would want to live here!” The 2011 team blended beautiful design to include a comfortable feeling. We expect to do well again this fall because we are building a house that we believe families will want. Other teams have very technologically advanced or modern designs, however these are not affordable nor are they practical. For both Self-Reliance, and now InSite, we factor in cost, usability and aesthetics to create a home that anyone could imagine themselves living in.”

Contest 3: Engineering
Here, teams strive to achieve functionality and efficiency of house systems — ventilation, air quality and thermal balance — as well as to incorporate innovative engineering designs.

Jack Kerby Miller ’14: “Self-Reliance chose conservative, easy-to-understand mechanical systems that could be easily serviced and repaired, rather than replaced. These systems also often encouraged the manual adjustment of the house’s inhabitants rather than a high-tech automated controls that were liable to break or fail over decades of use. Two interesting innovations include a forced-air heating system that is flexible enough to use geothermal and an air-to-air heat exchanger to provide heat and air conditioning while siphoning off condensation to be stored and used to water the houses plants.

“In most ways, InSite has adopted the same strategies for heating and cooling systems as Self-Reliance, at least in principle if not in name. InSite will feature a new system of automated louvers that will help implement a passive ventillation strategy using the tall chimney structure.”

Contest 4: Communications
A jury of communication  professionals evaluate the teams’ final website, public exhibit materials, narratives, audiovisual presentations and on-site presentations. Self-Reliance’s score of 90 took home the top slot in 2011.
Newbury: “As liberal arts students, we are great at talking to people and presenting our ideas. In 2011 this came through in our communications walk-through to the jury, as well as in our presentation materials, video-walkthroughs and website. In 2013, our website is well-designed and has regular updates to keep content fresh, while our other communications materials will be just as successful and aesthetically appealing. We also host events that inform the college and community, and we believe that spreading our message through direct events is crucial to our success in the communications contest. In addition, we are also pushing the envelope in terms of Educational Outreach and Social Media Presence in 2013. We have a dedicated education team that goes to elementary, primary, middle and high schools to present lessons on InSite and sustainability. It has been really important for us to reach out to many age-groups to not only spread the word about InSite, but to also encourage environmental consciousness from an early age. The work that the education team has done will play a pivotal role in making our team stand out among others in Irvine, because its efforts go above and beyond the competition requirements.”

Contest 5: Affordability
This contest is very explicit: the team receives full marks from a professional cost estimator if the house has an estimated construction cost of $250,000 or less. Houses above $600,000 get zero points, while between those two numbers is the zero to 100 scale.

DiPrinzio: “Up until the 2011 competition, the Solar Decathlon had a fatal flaw: it lacked any controls on price and affordability. The 2009 winner was team Germany, who built an $800,000 solar bachelor pad. It was a cube covered in far more solar panels than was necessary for the competition and was financially and logistically impractical, but the judging formula deemed it the winner. The affordability category in the 2011 competition radically changed the designs submitted. It put a $250,000 limit for full points in the affordability competition and a sliding scale for more expensive designs. [Affordability] made designs more modest and practical for the situations they were designed for.”

Finally, one parting thought from Komarin: “We were out on the deck [of the 2011 entry] as a woman walked past us in the crowd in front. She stopped, turned to her friend as she pointed at our house, referred to it a “black stallion,” and then just kept walking. That was awesome.”