SCI-Arc's DALE House.

SCI-Arc's DALE House.

Credit: Mimi Zeiger

The government may have shut down, but that can’t stop student teams from putting the final touches on their solar-powered, energy-efficient homes as the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon competition opens today. Funded by federal dollars from previous years and private-sector sponsors, the Solar Decathlon is held this year for the first time at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif. Located on the former site of the 4,700-acre  Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, the park itself stands as a hopeful example of environmental mitigation and sustainability. 

Under blue skies and warm temperatures, the new location puts the designs, which teams spent two years completing, to the test. Decathlon judges rank teams by their architecture, engineering, affordability, and balance between energy production and consumption, among other criteria, but it was pretty clear walking down Decathlete Way which homes offer cool comfort and which ones look cool.

The main avenue through the Solar Decathlon site on media day.

The main avenue through the Solar Decathlon site on media day.

Credit: Mimi Zeiger

Case in point: Ecohabit, the Stevens Institute of Technology entry, sits across the way from SCI-Arc/Caltech’s entry, DALE, the Dynamic Augmented Living Environment. The two entries represent not only wildly different design approaches but also a contrast in applied technology. 

All of the Solar Decathlon homes are equipped with smart energy management systems to monitor energy loads, and Stevens is no exception, but the team stands out in their use of multiple advanced products. The walls behind Ecohabit’s wood slat-façade are made of BioPCM by Phase Change Energy Solutions, an insulation that mimics the thermal mass of concrete and, according to the team, can reduce heating and cooling loads by 84 percent. The house is equipped with a desiccant system that reduces indoor humidity and uses the collected condensate to mist the exterior HVAC unit, increasing its efficiency. And the roof is covered in Dow Powerhouse Solar Shingles, a photovoltaic system that is lower profile than typical roof PV panels.

A rendering of Stevens's Ecohabit.

A rendering of Stevens's Ecohabit.

Credit: Stevens Institute of Technology


Zak Moy, an art and technology major at Stevens, introducing the house on media day.

Zak Moy, an art and technology major at Stevens, introducing the house on media day.

Credit: Mimi Zeiger

Where the Ecohabit prides itself on the integration of eco-minded systems into an ultra-efficient house, DALE from SCI-Arc/Caltech is decidedly expressive: The whole net-zero house moves. Split into two steel-framed modules—one for sleeping and lounging, the other of eating and bathing—DALE rides on reclaimed railroad tracks. A pair of motorized bridge crane end trucks moves the modules along the rails. When split apart, the house creates a large central courtyard that embraces classic indoor-outdoor Southern California living. Hence, all the rooms are naturally ventilated.

The two modules of the DALE House move along reclaimed railroad tracks. When the two modules are separated, the interior space can be used as a courtyard.

The two modules of the DALE House move along reclaimed railroad tracks. When the two modules are separated, the interior space can be used as a courtyard.

Credit: Mimi Zeiger

A 28-panel PV array not only produces all of the house's electricity, but doubles as a sunscreen for the courtyard. “We made sure that it was cheaper to move the house as compared to the energy required for HVAC,” explains Nicole Violani, a SCI-Arc alum who graduated this past spring. Akin to Gordon Matta-Clark’s "Splitting" from 1974, an artwork that cuts the single-family house in two, the SCI-Arc/Caltech entry reconsiders the very nature of home. And if that isn’t enough, the team is offering the first 20,000 DALE visitors certified Carbon Offsets courtesy of TerraPass to mitigate CO2 emissions created during the drive to Orange County. 

See more Solar Decathlon updates here.