The 2013 Solar Decathlon competition brought together student participants from across North America and Europe. (Click here to see our extensive coverage.) For the young architects, engineers and designers, the rewards of the competition include the education and hands-on experience they gained. However, their work offers several lessons for industry professionals of all ages.

Here’s a closer look at six trends from this year’s decathlon that you should know.

Sustainability can be done with style
While energy efficiency and functionality are essential, design aesthetic is also a key component of the competition. As a result, many of the entries showed real creativity in this area, proving once again that high-performance homes can be truly beautiful. One standout worth noting is PEAK, from West Virginia University. Team PEAK took inspiration from the traditional log cabin style of the Appalachians. Similarly, the ADAPT home (from Team Texas, comprised of students from the University of Texas at El Paso and El Paso Community College) and the FluxHome team (from the University of Southern California) also took inspiration from classic styles–Midcentury Modern and Craftsman, respectively.

Flexibility and customization can go hand-in-hand with performance
The Solar Decathlon entries demonstrated that it’s more than possible to create tailor-made concepts to meet various needs without sacrificing performance. Many of the designs are uniquely modular in nature, allowing some degree of flexibility for residents. The Start.Home’s structure, for example, is based on a central core that can be personalized to meet the needs of each owner. The Stanford University team behind Start.Home stated that one of their design goals was “to eliminate “cookie-cutter homes.”

Sustainable design can reflect the varying needs of different “green consumers”
Eco-conscious consumers are no longer one demographic, and the 2013 Solar Decathlon entries reflect that reality. The University of Nevada Las Vegas’ DesertSol House was named winner of the Market Appeal Contest, recognizing the team whose design most closely met the needs of its specified consumer group. Designed as a second home for vacations or retirement living for middle- to upper-income clients, DesertSol House includes features such as layered lighting to enable residents to age in place. Other examples include, The Borealis home (from the University of Calgary) which described its entry as a “modular home that tackles the societal problem of sustainable living in remote environments.”Harvest House (from Team Capitol D.C.) is designed for U.S. war veterans.
Big challenges require big ideas
All of the Solar Decathlon entries reinforce the importance of innovation in energy-efficient design, making it especially clear that tomorrow’s industry leaders are not afraid to face tough challenges. In particular, Norwich University’s Delta T-90 house was designed to affordably address the extreme (90 degree) annual temperature fluctuation common to Vermont, where the school is located. Features that enable the house to meet this goal include advanced framing techniques and insulation both in, and surrounding, the wall cavity. The Norwich team won the affordability contest in a three-way tie with the team from Stanford and Team Kentuckiana, and received a special award in honor of longtime operations manager for the Solar Decathlon Byron Stafford.

It’s not just about solar
To meet competition goals of creating “cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive” homes, entrants incorporated a number of high-tech, green components that went beyond simply solar panels. These include living walls, computerized controls that run energy systems based on daily weather (see Echo House); on-demand hot water systems (check out EcoHabit Home); and even a mobile space that both maximizes and transitions access to outdoor living (as seen on the DALE house).
Europe knows best
Fostered by a myriad of green certification agencies, European architects and designers have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to sustainability. The 2013 Solar Decathlon makes it clear that the next generation is keeping up the tradition. This year’s winner was Team Austria’s LISI (Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation) House, and the Czech Technical University's Air House, which finished third overall, won the Architecture contest. One of the most obvious features that seemed to set the European entries apart: excellent use of more passive HVAC methods, such as natural ventilation.


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What have you learned from this year’s solar decathlon entries? Comment on the trends and share your biggest takeaways from the competition here, or on Twitter @ecobuildingpulse.