As if we needed any more evidence that solar houses can be both high-performing and beautiful, comfortable places to live, the 2009 Solar Decathlon has once again proved the point. Every other year, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) challenges college and university students from around the world to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses. Participants create a veritable solar village on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., pitting their creations against each other to determine which house best fuses design, optimum energy efficiency, maximum energy production, and modern comfort and conveniences.

In October 2009, student teams exhibited 20 cleverly executed concepts that rivaled the best in the business for pure innovation. Each was evaluated in 10 categories: architecture, market viability, engineering, lighting design, communications, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and net metering. Every house offered a fascinating vision of the possibilities of residential solar design while addressing other key aspects of sustainability, including resource conservation. But there could only be one first place winner in the end. Thanks in large part to its perfect showing in the net metering contest, Team Germany's surPLUShome outperformed all the others, scoring 908.297 points out of a possible 1,000.

The secret to the German house's success may be in its name. By integrating 250 thin-film photovoltaic panels into its exterior cladding, along with 40 photovoltaic roof panels, the team from Technische Universität Darmstadt actively pursued—and achieved—all 150 points possible in net metering by producing a large surplus of energy on even the cloudiest days. Team Germany also took third place in lighting design, tied for third place in architecture, and placed first in the comfort zone contest for maintaining a consistent indoor temperature range and relative humidity. Inside the tall, modern box, the team designed a single multifunctional room with a loft, creating a spacious interior that architecture contest judge Kevin Burke, AIA, LEED AP, of William McDonough + Partners, calls a “gracious and adaptable living space.”

The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign's Gable Home placed second, with an overall score of 897.3 points. Blending a traditional form with high-performance materials, a tightly sealed building envelope, and high-efficiency systems, the Gable Home accomplished an exceptionally efficient performance, placing second in net metering and winning the appliances, hot water, and home entertainment contests. Illinois' entry was truly residential in its scale and quality, Burke says, calling it “the quintessential gable home.”

Team California placed third overall, accumulating 863.089 points, top honors in the architecture and communications contests, and “top three” status in all but three contests. Students from Santa Clara University and the California College of the Arts designed the Refract House as an extruded tube bent around a courtyard—a choice that masterfully controlled both the amount and movement of light through its interior. The judges were struck by its unique form, sheer beauty, and elegance. “It was a very experientially rich design,” says architecture judge Sarah Susanka, FAIA, of Susanka Studios. “It was a wonderful example of how you can use interior views to make space feel larger.”

Since the Solar Decathlon's 2002 debut, project quality has improved with each iteration, says director Richard King. The 2009 competition—the fourth in its history—showcased a greater overall sophistication in approach, design concepts, and engineering. “The bar is raised,” King says. “The houses were uniformly better.”

Planning is already under way for the 2011 Solar Decathlon. For details on the 2009 houses, visit