Vincent Ricardel

Richard King directs the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition, which launched, after more than a decade of planning, in 2002. Since then, the Solar Decathlon has spread to other continents—two European versions have been held in Madrid (2010 and 2012) and at Versailles, France (2014), and the first Chinese Solar Decathlon occurred last month in Datong, China. “It gives me a sense of real hope to see all of these teams from dozens of countries competing to build a better and cleaner future,” King says.

I never expected a competition of houses to spark so much interest. It wasn’t until I formulated 10 different ways to judge and measure the houses that I felt more confident we were on to something. The challenge has always been to design attractive, healthy places to live, and make all the energy systems reliably work together. Judging for design excellence and measuring end-use energy challenges young architects and engineers to think creatively. It also compels the schools of architecture and engineering to work together, many for the first time. The arguments between teammates are sometimes heated and passionate, but the collaboration ultimately transforms ideas into reality.

Many of the houses end up as living laboratories elsewhere after the competitions. Missouri University of Science & Technology designed and built four competition houses—all of which have been placed permanently, side-by-side, on campus. The houses are being used for student housing, but they are also constantly being monitored for energy performance. As can be expected, the university is gaining valuable information. Competition houses are also used as public demonstrations. I recently visited the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond with my family. When we got out of the car, something caught the corner of my eye—and I turned around to find Virginia Tech’s Solar Decathlon house from 2009 on display in front of the museum.

My wife and I built a zero-net-energy solar house in 2008. It is a highly energy efficient house that includes a 6-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system and a passive design. The house produces barely any carbon emissions. It’s all electric, yet we have not paid an electric bill in five years. We realized, though, that we’ve reduced our carbon footprint by only half because we have two cars in the driveway. I bring this up as a way of saying that the Department of Energy is considering expanding the 2015 competition’s scope to consider transportation: How do you “get around” emissions-free and also live in a home that’s emissions-free? Integrating the parts of our lives—not just our homes—to be energy efficient is the next step. And I think we can get there. —As told to William Richards

Learn more about the 2013 Solar Decathlon (Oct. 3–13) at