Sunny Days Ahead

College teams from across the country and around the globe recently traveled to Washington to see who could build the most affordable, energy-efficient, and attractive solar-powered home. 

A sunny future is what they want, and they’re going to build it. For two weeks in September, 19 college teams from five countries and four continents converged on the nation’s capital for a competition to design, build, and operate a solar-powered house that quietly sips energy while looking good and costing less. They were participating in the Solar Decathlon, a biennial challenge hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy that began in 2002 to support the goal of creating a clean energy economy, while saving American families and businesses money and reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuels.

This year’s teams—one of them came all the way from New Zealand—dug into their toolboxes to build modular solar houses that work in a variety of places, from crowded cities and tree-lined suburbs to off-the-grid bush country. The homes are designed for a broad range of housing needs and audiences, moving beyond hipsters and back-to-the-landers to include low-income communities, disaster-relief efforts, and retirees—anyone seeking affordable and energy-efficient housing.

Just a few weeks ago the collegiate teams were juggling homework and hard hats while putting the finishing touches on their life-size erector sets. They departed from their respective campuses and relocated to the Mall’s West Potomac Park, where they reconstructed the houses in the shadow of the Washington Monument. The construction of the entire solar village happens all at once and seemingly overnight. (See a time-lapse video here.)

According to the Decathlon rulebook, the winner of the competition is the team that “best blends affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.”

Although the contest was plagued by rain and cloudy weather, seven out of the 19 teams’ houses still produced more energy than they consumed. In the end, the University of Maryland was crowned the overall winner, followed by Purdue University and New Zealand’s Victoria University of Willington. (The complete list of final results and team scores is available at

At a reception held at the close of the contest, Appalachian State University was presented with the People’s Choice Award, a poll in which more than 92,000 votes were cast by visitors, fans, and consumers.

Once this year’s houses are disassembled, they will roll out of Washington to embark on months-long countrywide and global educational tours. Some of the houses will be sold to recover construction costs or to raise funds for future Decathlon teams. Many will be put on display for public tours and continued research.

The Solar Decathlon is already excepting applications for the next contest, which will be held in fall 2013. Student teams can apply at

See our September-October 2011 issue for more on solar energy. 

“The views expressed in user comments do not reflect the views of Audubon. Audubon does not participate in political campaigns, nor do we support or oppose candidates.”