Tenemos un ganador! First Solar Decathlon Europe places the U.S. back in the spotlight

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With the first four Solar Decathlons held in the U.S., intrigue was high for the first European edition held in Madrid this month. In a bid to find out exactly what the competition had in store this year, I travelled over to the Villa Solar just a few days before the closing ceremony to see the offerings first-hand.

After 10 days of heated competition, with scorching temperatures beating down all day in the Spanish capital city, the 17 teams' enthusiasm was on top form. Each house's designers welcomed me in, eager to reveal all about the design, planning and above all renewable aspects that had been worked into their entry.

Though the competition didn't close until the 27th, the students taking part were still submitted to rigorous testing on a daily basis as well as awards being presented in differing categories throughout the 10-day duration. The rules for the competition were far more strict than I imagined, as the houses not only had to display certain sustainable aspects in their design, but had to continue to comply with regulations throughout the contest. Team Finland from the Helsinki University of Technology, who won the architecture award (design below), were more than happy to show me how their monitoring system keeps track of the house's humidity, energy generation and output, temperature and more. The team explained how they must keep the levels within a certain bracket in order to comply with competition rules; falling above or below these levels could cost them a prize. The final awards were presented at the closing ceremony on the Sunday, with the overall winner and second and third places declared.

Irony struck as first place was announced, as after three years of German winners in the States, the European competition drew out a U.S. winner with Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University's Lumenhaus grabbing the top spot. Second and third places were awarded to the University of Applied Sciences Rosenheim and the Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences with their entries Ikaros and home+. The Lumenhaus, earning a total of 811 points out of 10,000, was pronounced the most efficient of the competition, yet Ikaros was hot on its heels falling into second by only one point.

The solar aspects of all of the houses were impressive, with an increased use of building-integrated design being showcased. While most of the entries stuck to the more traditional crystalline option (with six out of the 17 entries using SunPower modules), it was also nice to see a couple of the houses make use of thin-film technology. All of the systems were connected to the Spanish grid, with many of the houses supplying a fair amount of electricity considering they were generating more than was required in the 34ºC heat (many of the entries were designed to be efficient in much cooler temperatures).

While the awards were obviously the main point of the event, it was great to see how enthusiastic each team was about the use of renewable energy generation. Many of the students I spoke with talked excitedly about how much energy their house was producing, with one team member telling me how he didn't care where they came in the rankings – just seeing their design in the flesh was prize enough. In a competition like this it would be easy to fall into a main category of architectural design, with emphasis being placed on aesthetics rather than sustainability. However, with the advancements in photovoltaic technology, it is now easier than it has ever been to achieve both.

The Solar Decathlon Europe competition began in 2007 when the Spanish Housing Ministry and the U.S. Department of Energy signed an agreement to create a European version of the competition, in collaboration with the Polytechnic University of Madrid.

Seventeen university teams from seven countries and three continents participated in this competition constructing real, sustainable, self-sufficient and comfortable houses exclusively sustained by solar energy.

Ten awards over ten days

Architecture

1stAalto University Finland, Universidad Politécnica de Cataluña and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University tie.

2ndBergische Universität Wuppertal and Ecole National Supérieure d'Architecture de Grenoble tie.

3rdUniversity of Applied Sciences Rosenheim and Universidad CEU Cardenal Herrera tie.

Construction & engineering

1stStuttgart University of Applied Sciences.

2ndArts et Métiers Paris Tech.

3rd École National Supérieure d'Architecture de Grenoble and University of Applied Sciences Rosenheim tie.

Solar systems & hot water

1stFachochschule fur Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin.

Energy balance

1stUniversity of Applied Sciences Rosenheim.

Comfort conditions

1stUniversity of Applied Sciences Rosenheim.

2ndArts et Métiers Paris Tech

3rdVirginia Polytechnic Institute & State Universi.

Usage

1stUniversity of Applied Sciences Rosenheim.

Communications & social media

1stUniversity of Florida.

2ndVirginia Polytechnic Institute.

3rd State Univerity and Fanchhoschule für Technik und Wirtschaft Berlin.

Industrialization & market viability

1stUniversidad CEU Cardenal Herrera.

2ndUniversity of Applied Sciences Rosenheim.

3rd Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University.

Innovation

1stStuttgart University of Applied Sciences.

2ndArts et Métiers Paris Tech.

3rd –  École National Supèrieure d´Architecture de Grenoble .

Sustainability

1stArts et Métiers Paris Tech.

2ndUniversity of Nottingham.

3rdSttutgart University of Applied Sciences.

Photos by Emma Hughes and courtesy of Solar Decathlon Europe

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