After weeks of searching and speculation, the Solar Decathlon, the biennial competition in which 20 student teams design, build, and operate solar-powered houses, has found a new home in Washington’s West Potomac Park, located between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and just a short walk from the competition’s original location on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. The Department of Energy (DOE), which hosts the popular event, announced a possible location change during the International Builders’ Show in January, necessitated by upcoming Mall restoration plans by the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the National Park Service. Initially, the DOE said it would explore all options, including other cities or other local areas that could accommodate the massive event in time for its scheduled dates in late September.
The Feb. 23 announcement that the Solar Decathlon would remain on National Mall proper came as a relief to many participants and supporters. A move to another city was of particular concern to the teams, because the houses are designed for Washington’s climate and for the specific orientation of their plots within the Solar Decathlon “neighborhood.”
Even other D.C.-area venues were less than desirable because they lack the exposure of the Nation’s Front Yard (more than 300,000 people toured the Decathlon homes in 2009) and because some options aren’t accessible by public transportation.
In response to the January announcement, student participants launched a grassroots campaign to keep the Decathlon on the Mall, including a Facebook page and a YouTube video plea. Articles ran in major media outlets, including The Washington Post and The Huffington Post, and the lobbying effort gained the attention and support of the AIA and key federal government representatives.
“We’re very, very, very excited,” said graduate student Elyse Petersen when asked about her University of Hawaii team’s reaction to the final relocation decision. “All of the efforts of all the teams has paid off as far as bringing awareness to the need to keep it on the National Mall.”
Petersen says the campaign also helped create early buzz from the public, boosting exposure for the event that should translate into even greater support and more visitors in September.
“We’re really happy. We felt that it was a victory, and we’re appreciative that the DOI was willing to strike a compromise,” says Elisabeth Neigert, a graduate student at SCI-Arc, project manager for the SCI-Arc/Caltech team from California. “We’re [still] accessible to the public, and we’re near our nation’s government,” she adds, noting the importance of policymakers viewing the future-shaping innovations the teams put forth.
It’s not yet clear how much modification, if any, teams will have to make to their home designs to accommodate the new location. According to the map provided by the DOE (above), the neighborhood plot sits at a different angle than the original layout, which one can assume may necessitate some rejiggering of solar panels and floor plans to achieve desired results. Still, the changes are likely less cumbersome than if the venue had been moved to an entirely new city.
“Keeping the competition on the National Mall property allows the students to proceed with their existing home designs, specifically tailored for Washington’s latitude, temperature, and humidity conditions,” said Secretary of Energy Steven Chu in an announcement. “The West Potomac site is in close proximity to a number of attractions and will provide an ideal stage to highlight clean energy solutions for thousands of public visitors.”
Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor of EcoHome.