Team Capitol DC's Harvest House.
Mimi Zeiger Team Capitol DC's Harvest House.

This year the Solar Decathlon expands beyond houses. For the first time, the event shares the Orange County Great Park venue with The XPO, an exposition so eco-conscious and energy-efficient, it doesn't need the “E”. With an eye for innovation and education, the XPO includes such activities as the SunShot Innovation Pavilion, showcasing manufactures and products, the Transportation Zone for those interested in hybrid and electric vehicles, and workshop-oriented Farm + Food Lab for kids and adults.Over on Decathlete Way, the collegiate teams are also expanding their thinking beyond the walls of their solar-powered houses. Mirroring a growing desire among students and designers to tackle social and climate-related issues more profoundly, several teams have taken on a greater mission with their projects.  

Hailing from Vermont, an area hit hard by direct and indirect economic impacts of Hurricane Irene, Norwich University’s entry is designed for affordability and to raise the standard of housing in the New England region. The team’s website cite a statistic stating that in 2010, 47% of renters and 38% of Vermont homeowners paid more than one-third of their income for housing. So Norwich positioned its project, The Delta T-90 House, to serve a family earning 20% less than median income. From a design angle, the house is somewhat limited, since it is based on the specifications of a factory-built home in order to keep costs down. However, the façade features a cedar rainscreen made to resemble a Vermont barn and cozy insulated walls with R-values over 50.

Norwich's Delta T-90 House.
Mimi Zeiger Norwich's Delta T-90 House.

Students Katie Anderson (left) and Rachel Opare-Sen inside Norwich's house.
Mimi Zeiger Students Katie Anderson (left) and Rachel Opare-Sen inside Norwich's house.

Team Kentucky/Indiana is a joint project between University of Louisville, Ball State University, and University of Kentucky. Their entry, The Phoenix House, is intended to be a permanent solution for disaster relief housing. The design was inspired by the EF-4 tornado that hit Henryville, Ind., in March 2012. The house is super-structural, employing a steel chassis, durable SIP panels, and roof trusses that enable the structure to withstand tornado speed winds. In fact, the bathroom doubles as a safe room.

Team Kentucky/Indiana's Phoenix House.
Credit: Mimi Zeiger

Team Kentucky/Indiana's Phoenix House.

Phoenix House, constructed with steel trusses and SIPs, can withstand tornado speed winds.
Mimi Zeiger Phoenix House, constructed with steel trusses and SIPs, can withstand tornado speed winds.

Clair Ainsworth, who is finishing her masters in sustainable design at Catholic University, led me through the tour of Harvest House, by Team Capitol DC: The Catholic University of America, George Washington University, and American University. As she walked up the ramp made of reclaimed wood, she pointed out the abundant herbs, vegetables, and flowers that surround the house. “We want to heal through all senses: sight, taste, smell, touch,” she told me. 

Healing is crucial to Team Capitol DC’s design; after the Solar Decathlon, the house will be donated to Wounded Warrior Homes, a nonprofit organization supports armed forces vets with traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, and installed on a property in Vista, Calif. The entry features bright green passively activated sunshades, non-off gassing materials, and is ADA accessible. 

Faculty advisor Bill Jelen, who runs the School of Architecture’s design collaborative outreach program at Catholic University, explains that the ideas behind Harvest House came directly from the students: “It is my job to use the talents of the university to help students learn through design, and do good.” 

See more Solar Decathlon updates here.

Harvest House features bright green sunshades.
Credit: Mimi Zeiger

Harvest House features bright green sunshades.

Interior of Harvest House.
Mimi Zeiger Interior of Harvest House.