The University of Maryland’s WaterShed House was named the overall winner of the 2011 Solar Decathlon. At the conclusion of the decathlon, WaterShed claimed the top spot from among 19 teams and 10 categories, which included architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort, hot water use, appliance efficiency, home entertainment capabilities, and energy balance. “The University of Maryland won top honors overall by designing, building, and operating the most cost effective, energy efficient and attractive solar powered house,” says the DOE announcement. WaterShed’s final score of 951 out of a possible 1,000 came in 20 points higher than the next closest contender, the traditional design entry from Purdue University with 931 points. New Zealand’s off-the-grid “Bach” or holiday home took third place with 919 points, and clean lines blended with rustic finishes and copious outdoor living earned Appalachian State’s Solar Homestead the People’s Choice Award.

WaterShed moved into and remained in first place earlier this week after winning the prestigious architecture contest. One of 10 events leading up the grand prize for the biennial Solar Decathlon, the architecture contest carries the same weight but a bit more cachet than some of the other categories that calculate the livability, affordability, and performance of each house. “WaterShed achieves an elegant mix of inspiration, function, and simplicity. It takes our current greatest challenges in the built environment—energy and water—and transforms them into opportunities for spatial beauty and poetry while maintaining livability in every square inch,” states contest juror, architect, and green design guru Michelle Kaufmann, AIA, LEED AP.

WaterShed team member and fourth-year architecture student Parlin Meyer explains how the team’s concept relates to water, which ultimately inspired the elegant design that earned such high marks from Kaufmann and the other architecture jurors, Paul Hutton and Bob Schubert. In addition to educating visitors (and eventually homeowners) on water usage, the home’s key architectural features visually and functionally relate to recycling and conserving water. The butterfly roof is one example that catches the eye as you approach the building. Creating distinct zones inside the house, the roof also funnels stormwater through a filtration system and into planters ringing the nearly 500 square feet of outdoor space. The built-in, modular planters incorporate native grasses and other indigenous plants that require little maintenance into the design of the house. The grasses also screen the foundation while providing a vertical counterpoint to horizontal poplar siding.

An innovative graywater recycling system is another place where Meyer feels WaterShed earned high marks in several of the contests. Graywater from sinks and the shower is combined with roof runoff and directed to a natural wetlands biofiltration garden in the entry courtyard. The wetlands, common to Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay Watershed, add a natural touch to the spacious courtyard and are located close to related mechanical components. “Recycling and reusing graywater reduces the house’s reliance on municipal systems and lessens the impact on the environment,” Meyer says. “Plus our design educates the homeowner on advantages of water recycling and conservation while adding natural beauty to the house.”

The placement of thermal hot water solar collection panels is another feature that demonstrates both thoughtful design detailing and clever technical planning. “We needed a larger-than-normal solar hot water array because of the wetlands filtration system,” Meyer explains. Instead of overburdening the roof or consuming premium deck space, the team opted to place the tubes vertically on a wall adjacent to hot water and graywater storage tanks. Exposed galvalume completes the wall, mimicking undulations in the solar tubes. The freestanding wall extends out from the back elevation to define the entry courtyard while masking the rear of the house as well as potentially unappealing views. “The panels are close to the tanks, they tie into the back wall, and are also architecturally interesting,” Meyers adds. 

To learn more about the architecture and engineering behind WaterShed, view videos via its YouTube channel here. Explore other Solar Decathlon projects or see current scores and team placement by visiting Teams interested in entering the sixth Solar Decathlon, to be held in fall 2013, can apply online at