European universities are making a habit of winning the Solar Decathlon. In 2007 and 2009, German teams walked off with the U.S. Department of Energy's biennial house-building contest. And now this year a team from Austria has topped the field, with the Czech Republic team coming in third.
Is there some reason American schools keeping losing to their brethren across the pond? (This despite having many more entries).
Philipp Klebert, from Team Austria, says being "a little exotic" may have helped the Europeans. But not that much. Each house has to compete over 10 separate tests ranging from a house's affordability to its market appeal, so putting on a fancy accent isn't going to sway anyone. "You're not going to fool the jurors. They know what they are doing," he says.
The Austrian house, called Living Inspired by Sustainability Innovation (or "LISI"), has two main features setting it apart. First, it is 96% wood—much of it highly finished, and with few joints or bolts showing. "It was important to us to use wood, because we have a lot of forests in Austria," Klebert says. "We wanted to make a statement about sustainability in that respect."
Second, it has a large living space. The design allows inhabitants to completely open out the back of the house by making two large sliding glass doors—one wall to ceiling, another wall to wall—practically disappear. "We can actually open them completely and retract them to the wall fully," Klebert says. "A lot of people were walking through asking 'what's happening here, you're missing some walls here.'"
The large space also keeps cooling costs down. While other teams had to run expensive climate control systems during the contest's 90-degree heat, the Austrian team simply opened up the patio doors. "It's great for energy consumption, because we can use all that space for natural ventilation and stay within our boundaries for temperature and humidity," Klebert says.
Under Decathlon rules, each house needs to produce as much solar energy power as it uses, and perform basic functions like generating hot water. The Austrian team did well across most of the 10 categories. The University of Nevada Las Vegas came second overall, for its "DesertSol" concept, with teams from Stevens Institute of Technology and Stanford University coming in fourth and fifth.
After leaving the Solar Decathlon grounds in Irvine, California, the Austrian house is set for an exhibition hall outside Vienna. One of the teams sponsors, Weissenseer, is looking to take the house to market, perhaps as a self-assembly kit.
"When you hear the names of the really big universities, like Stanford and Caltech, it's kind of inspiring and intimidating a little bit, when you see them," Klebert says. "We knew there was going to be a very tough competition with a lot of very strong teams. We're just over the moon we managed to come out on top."