After years of preparation and 10 days of competition, another U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon has come to a close. The University of Maryland is going home with top honors. But did anyone outside of the participating schools and the building community notice?

In my opinion, one of the key elements of the Solar Decathlon is the spotlight that it shines on the marriage of innovation, technology, efficiency, and outstanding design—not just for the participating universities and students, and the design community, but for the general public as well. It was estimated that more than 300,000 people toured the 20 homes exhibiting in 2009.

The competition is held every two years and since its launch in 2002, had been located on a prominent spot on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., nestled between the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol. It was an easily accessible location that capitalized on the tourist traffic of the area. At the beginning of this year, however, Solar Decathlon director Richard King announced that the 2011 competition would be moved from the Mall. The reason given was that the National Park Service’s plans to recondition the Mall precluded the competition from being held on its usual site.

The announced raised an uproar. Rumors speculated that not only was the competition leaving the Mall, but it would leave Washington entirely, a problem for teams that had spent more than two years designing their solar-powered homes for D.C.’s specific climate and weather conditions. Student participants launched a grassroots campaign to keep the Decathlon in its original location. They wrote to and lobbied state representatives, and requested meetings with the Department of the Interior and the DOE. Twelve senators and 11 members of the House of Representatives signed letters to the DOI and DOE urging them to reinstate the Decathlon on the Mall.

After a few weeks of uncertainty, it was announced that the 2011 competition would take place at D.C.’s West Potomac Park. Located between the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials and near the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, the site is technically considered part of the National Mall proper and on paper appears to be a short walk from the original location. And it was certainly preferable to another possible site that had been rumored: the hard-to-access National Harbor.

In execution, however, it was a poor choice of a venue. As I found out in wandering over to the site myself last week, if you weren’t actively looking for the Solar Decathlon, you certainly wouldn’t find it. Remember the 300,000 people that toured the Decathlon homes in 2009? I’m sure the number this year was much lower, and that is a complete shame.

As in years past, the 2011 net-zero homes featured an array of innovation and architectural styles. Appalachian State University’s Solar Homestead featured six outbuilding modules connected by a great porch covered by a trellis of bifacial solar cells. Team New Zealand (Victoria University of Wellington) took inspiration from the traditional New Zealand holiday home (a bach house) and featured an abundance of western red cedar, while Team New Jersey (Rutgers—The State University of New Jersey and New Jersey Institute of Technology) crated its ENJOY house out of precast concrete insulated panels. The house from Parsons the New School for Design and Stevenson Institute of Technology was designed for a specific client, Habitat for Humanity, and will be transported to a site in the D.C. neighborhood of Deanwood, east of the Anacostia river, where it will be joined together with a second house to create a two-family home.

What may have been of most interest this year, however, was a new contest: affordability. Teams earned points for meeting a target construction cost of $250,000 or less, with 100 points awarded for meeting the target and a sliding point scale applied for costs between $250,001 and $600,000. Teams going over $600,000 would receive zero points. The result? In years past, it was rumored that top projects cost upwards of $800,000. This year, the highest construction costs reported was $470,465. Two teams, the joint effort from Parsons the New School for Design and Stevenson Institute of Technology, and Team Belgium met the target, reporting estimated costs of $229,890 and $249,568 respectively. The overall Solar Decathlon winner, the University of Maryland’s WaterShed, which highlighted on-site stormwater management, cost $336,336.

This addition to the overall competition is key as it is one thing to design with an unlimited budget and another to create practical solutions in an economy that may be veering toward a second recession. It’s a point of discussion that recently came up in ECO-STRUCTURE’s annual Evergreen awards, when a 2009 Solar Decathlon entry, the North House Project, was given a special jury recognition. Our jurors likened the past project (which is profiled online here) to a concept car—a great showcase of marketplace potential but not necessarily deliverable tomorrow.

The addition of affordability as a design criterion could have had a huge impact on visitors as they could have seen working examples of innovative—and more financial feasible—design that could be replicated on a more realistic scale. If, that is, people had seen the models on site. No matter how excited I got at each house, I kept thinking about how sad it was that these gems were so hidden on the new site. It should have been a spectacular public showcase, but on the day I was able to visit, the visitor flow was nowhere near the crowded days of 2009 when you had to line up for a house tour.

On the upside, the DOE has posted online tours of each house on its site, I highly recommend you take a look. Also, ECO-STRUCTURE will continue to post video coverage and individual team profiles in the weeks that come at Our hearty congratulations go out to all of this year’s participating teams for their work, and a special congratulations to the University of Maryland on taking home top honors.