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- By Erin Drenning   

Students from 14 colleges across the country converged on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., this October with houses in tow. University teams from Pittsburgh to Puerto Rico and everywhere in between hauled their sun-powered homes to the capital to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's first Solar Decathlon.

The University of Colorado came away from the competition as the winner, ranking in the top five in all but one of the 10 judging categories. The team uses what they call a BASE+, or Building a Sustainable Environment, system, which combines primary building materials with solar energy to maximize affordability while keeping a traditional look.

Second place overall went to the University of Virginia, which took a thoroughly futuristic approach to the design, from the louvered window coverings that run the length of the house to the "smart wall" inside. The wall is a light-emitting diode that changes color according to the interior temperature and holds a PC that acts as a control panel for the house. UVA was the only team to earn a perfect score in the design and livability category.

Participants in the competition were judged on 10 factors—hence the title, "decathlon"—including basic elements such as ventilation, refrigeration, and lighting, along with more advanced details like adequate power supply
for a small home business complete with computers, fax machines, and other electronics.

Each judging category was worth 100 points, except for design and livability, which accounted for 200 possible points. With such an emphasis on the design and appearance of the house, it made sense for engineering and architecture students to team up and work together on the solar houses. But while most teams were comprised of students from both majors, the University of Missouri-Rolla took a unique approach to the challenge: They designed and built a house without the help of future architects.

UMR faculty advisor Eric Showalter notes that the all-engineering team stands apart from the rest for reasons other than its makeup. "The original rules said that there would be no cranes on the Mall. So our house was designed to roll on and set down without one. But eventually," Showalter continues, "so many teams complained that they could not put their houses together, and they amended the rules to allow cranes." But UMR played by the rules.

Another impressive feat for the UMR team is that the entire modified H-frame is fully accessible to persons with disabilities (as per the Americans with Disabilities Act), including a ramp to the rear entrance and a fully ADA equipped bathroom.

UMR performed well in the competition, particularly in technical categories, placing first in refrigeration, second in energy balance, and third in hot water. And while they came in ninth overall, UMR team leader Chris Stevens, an aerospace engineering sophomore, predicted as much on the first day of the competition. "The judges are architects, and we're all engineers. We've built our solar house to be as practical as possible. And while we think we'll perform well in some categories that are more objective, who knows what the judges will think of our design," he says. "But we think it's really homey and conventional, the type of place that someone would actually want to live in."

And the team has managed to achieve just that. Unlike some of the competitors, UMR built a house that resembles any other on the market today. While some teams used more futuristic materials and designs, the only marked difference from a conventional, modern home in UMR is the sun room in the back of the house, complete with engraved ceramic tiles that soak up the afternoon heat and display the names of all of the team's supporters. Despite its traditional looks, UMR's house is quite energy efficient. Amy Schneider, a civil engineering senior and team member, explains that the house employs three methods to ensure efficiency: energy conservation through such features as appliances and lighting, passive solar home design, which includes room and window placement, and technologies like solar cells and panels.

The real test of any solar house is not how it fares in competition, but how it holds up under day-to-day living. Now that the Solar Decathlon has ended, Stevens says that they will continue testing it at their home campus. "The house was designed for year-round use, not just for the duration of a few weeks. We've thrown around a lot of ideas; the solar team might use it as an office, or we might even put keynote speakers and other university guests up for the night, rather than sending them to a hotel."

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