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California team leads way in Solar Decathlon

Students from Santa Clara University and the California College of the Arts join together to build a house that is energy efficient but doesn't scrimp on comfort.

October 13, 2009|Alexander C. Hart

WASHINGTON — The village on the National Mall looks like something out of science fiction: dozens of unusually shaped buildings with solar panels protruding from their rooftops.

The temporary homes are entries in the Solar Decathlon, a biennial contest designed to spur college students to pursue careers in science and engineering, encourage the development of green technologies and raise public awareness of energy efficiency issues.

Hundreds of undergraduates worked as long as two years to plan, design and build the solar-powered houses. Then they brought them to Washington for a week and a half of public exhibition and judging in 10 categories, such as comfort and how much energy they produce relative to how much they consume.

Most teams are from U.S. schools, but groups from Spain, Germany and Canada also are competing this year in the decathlon, which is run by the Energy Department.

Team California -- made up of students from Santa Clara University and the California College of the Arts -- focused on building a practical house that did not skimp on comfort.

"We wanted to blend form and function," project manager Allison Kopf said of the house, which has a wooden exterior and large deck. "We wanted to show that green living is not a compromise."

Many of the 580-square-foot home's eco-friendly features are not readily apparent. Its 48 solar panels are carefully angled so as to be nearly hidden from view. But despite the cloudy skies Monday, they still produced 75% of the energy needed to run the house, Kopf said. On a sunny day, the house's solar panels generate 150% of what is needed.

Teams taking part in the decathlon built their homes around different themes.

For the students from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that emphasis was "conserve, conserve, conserve," said team member Ryan Abendroth.

Their design, which from the outside resembles a barn, has been certified as using 90% less energy than the average home. The goal was accomplished by heavily insulating the house and making it almost airtight to keep the warm air inside and the cold air out.

Competing in the decathlon can be expensive. Teams receive $100,000 from the Energy Department after submitting their plans, but the real cost of building can be much higher.

Team California's house, for example, cost about $450,000, said Kyle Belcher, who graduated in May with a degree in architecture. But plugging that monetary gap was part of the learning experience, he said.

"We were asked to do a lot of things that you aren't usually asked to do while you're in school," Belcher said of the approximately 200 students who worked on the house. They had to persuade companies to sponsor them, make presentations to community groups, and undertake the design and construction of the project.

Inspiring and teaching students is the purpose of the event, said decathlon director Richard King. The decathlon centers "all around education," he said, noting that students get hands-on experience with engineering concepts they have only learned about in textbooks before participating.

As of Monday evening, Team California was in the lead. The judging concludes Friday.

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alex.hart@latimes.com

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