If necessity is the mother of invention, the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon is the cradle of green building creativity.

Since its inception in 2002, collegiate teams from around the world have convened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to share and show off their innovations in residential green building and design. While students' efforts to create sustainable, net-zero-energy buildings often consume several years leading up to the biannual competition, many industrious teams continue their design and product development research well beyond the event, which runs through Oct. 18.

meeting of the minds

In planning for their concept homes, Solar Decathlon teams enlist the help of corporate sponsors. In addition to considerable monetary and in-kind donations of materials, some teams have cultivated knowledge-sharing partnerships with their industry partners.

"Two years ago I received a phone call from a professor at Santa Clara University that said they were working on Solar Decathlon, and I immediately wanted to know how we could help," says Paola Rutledge, vice president of the panels and veneer division of bamboo materials manufacturer Teragren.

For its 2007 competition house, Team California—including students from Santa Clara and the California College of Art and Design—worked side by side with Teragren to develop structural bamboo I-beams. "We wanted to use bamboo because of its sustainability, and also for its strength," explains Santa Clara junior Alison Kopf, project manager for Team California's 2009 RefractHouse. "Because it's stronger than traditional framing lumber, we would be able to use less material without sacrificing the structural integrity of the house. Also, bamboo looks nice, so in 2007 we used the I-beams and left them uncovered, which added to the aesthetic we were going for."

Before 2007, Kopf says little structural bamboo was available, but the category is emerging now thanks in part to product development for Solar Decathlon. Since then, Team California and Teragren have continued to share research and development insights to move the bamboo I-beam concept forward.

"This year, we both wanted to take the next step and make an even better product," Rutledge says. "We're taking the knowledge we gained to see how we can approach structural bamboo and make it something viable for an engineered structural product line in the future."