Solar Decathlon in Irvine: Sunny, with a 100% chance of participation

In a rigorous competition, hundreds of college students from the U.S. and abroad design and build 19 solar-powered homes.

October 14, 2013|By Paloma Esquivel

Past the neatly coordinated neighborhoods, the master-planned homes and immaculate lawns, on an old military runway in Irvine, a community that imagines life on a smaller scale has taken root.

There, hundreds of college students from across the U.S., Canada and Europe have designed and built 19 solar-powered homes in a unique competition to see which will emerge as the most cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive.

Sponsored by the Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon is a rigorous competition — the rule book is 68 pages long and regulates everything from acceptable average interior temperature (71 to 76 degrees Fahrenheit) to affordability (ideally below $250,000) to the brightness setting on a TV during a scheduled movie night.


None of the homes is larger than 1,000 square feet, and each must produce at least as much energy as it consumes during the judging period.

"Everyone wants the American dream, the white picket fence with the large home. But I think we're slowly pushing away from that," said Justin Kang, who graduated this year with a master's in architecture and is project manager for Team USC. "I think eventually we'll push toward a solar-driven community and solar-powered homes."

Each of the 19 teams has prepared for years. After months spent designing and securing funding, they began construction earlier this year on their home campuses. Each house was then taken apart and shipped to be reconstructed at the Orange County Great Park.

For the past two weeks, each team has been judged on how its house would function in real life. Many of the structures will then return home to be displayed and used for research or as housing. One will house a wounded veteran near San Diego.

During judging, teams must do a host of real-world activities, including drawing hot water, regulating humidity and showing that energy-saving appliances don't just work, but work well.

To top it off, they are subjected to the ultimate test for any homeowner: the dinner party.

On a recent evening, after a long day that began with some teams putting finishing touches on their homes, each household prepared the first of two required dinners. Low music played in the background as mandated by judges, who roamed house to house ensuring that every rule was properly followed.

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