High-tech, mega-cool, solar — and yes, there’s a hot tub

October 19, 2007

University of Cincinnati’s multi-colored solar houseSolar houses aren’t what they used to be — and that is a cause for celebration. Specifically, on Washington’s National Mall, the 20 competing teams in this year’s Solar Decathlon spent the last few weeks celebrating the 20 small homes they designed to run only on the sun’s power. That means heating, cooling, cooking and cleaning in 800 square feet and using the solar energy collected by the house to run a small electric vehicle for essential transportation.

Grouped in a small “village” with the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument as backdrops, the solar homes are a far cry from those early solar-powered dwellings that looked like a normal suburban house, except for massive solar cells bolted to the roof. These houses are more subtle and stylish, by design.

With teams from Germany, Spain, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Canada and the United States, the contest is meant to show how to construct user-friendly homes that people might actually live in. In addition to being rated on architecture, engineering and energy balance, the homes are judged on market viability — whether they could be built easily and accommodate lots of different kinds of homeowners — and communications, that is, how well they teams express themselves in Web sites required by the competition.

So the house built by the University of Texas at Austin team has a “skin” that responds to win through shutters that can change to cope with the need for light, heat, fresh air and privacy. And those well-camouflaged solar collectors on the roof heat water for the home, with excess heat warming a bright orange hot tub on the home’s outside deck.

“The innovation is using a thing of joy like a hot tub as a technical amenity — it takes heat out of the system so you don’t pay for heating the tub,” said University of Texas student Jack Wingerath in a statement before the October final competition began.

The University of Maryland has an inviting hammock on its front deck, right by a wall planted with greenery — not in planters but actually in the external wall. The University of Madrid team’s entry looks like it might take off and fly at any moment. The entry from the University of Cincinnati features multi-colored exterior walls and tall grasses along the entrance ramp.

The Technische Universitat Darmstadt took first prize, with the University of Maryland taking second and Santa Clara University in California third. There is no cash award, but winners get “a trophy, the honor of winning and the jobs they’ll likely get out of it,” according to Kevin Brosnahan of the U.S. Department of Energy, which sponsored the competition along with corporations including BP, Sprint and Honeywell.

More information is available online at http://www.solardecathlon.org.

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