Solar Decathlon 2014: The Game Is On (Pt 1)

Appalachian State Team

Members of the Appalachian State  University Solar Decathlon team

Twenty international collegiate/technical institute teams from 16 countries are about to begin competing in the 2014 European Solar Decathlon 

2014 Logo

2014 Logo

which debuts June 28 at the Chateau of Versailles, France, just a half-hour from Paris.  Selected from among 44 applicants on several continents, the teams compete in 10 different contests with their custom-designed and -engineered, solar-powered houses. The juried competition runs until July 14 when the winner is announced.  We are putting a face on the 2014 European Decathlon with this preview story on  Appalachian State University  (Appalachian)  in Boone, North Carolina, and its partner “sister school,” the Université d’Angers  (France). Come back for stories on other teams and the June 28-July 14 competition through the Green News Update website and our direct links to the competition.

Partner across the Atlantic -the Universite d'Angers team

Partner across the Atlantic -the Universite d’Angers team

First, the backstory

The Solar Decathlon started in 2002 as an initiative of the US Department of Energy. Since then, the US has sponsored five more US-based competitions, and signed agreements to hold Decathlons in Europe, China and recently announced Latin America/Caribbean region. (Links are at the end of the story.)

Yes, it's a hands-on project!

Yes, it’s a hands-on project!

Each multidisciplinary team spends about two years planning, designing, engineering, specifying and fabricating its house, then transports it to the competition site ( in flat, panelized or modular sections) by truck or container ship for reassembly.  These are high-tech houses that rely entirely on solar power for all energy uses (cooling, electricity,  refrigeration, laundry) and there are a host of other high-performance features incorporated into them (living green walls, recycled materials, low flow toilets, etc).  Professors, mentors and technical experts in everything from dessicant systems to web communications offer advice and assistance along the way.

It’s a rich educational program as well as a competition.

Front rendering of Maison Reciprocity

Front rendering of Maison Reciprocity

Green is hot on the App State campus

“Green” is hot on US college and university campuses – whether it’s energy efficiency, food composting, LEED-certified dorms and buildings, or deep-green curriculum. Appalachian State is no stranger to the green scene. In 2009 it was named one of the 10 Coolest Green Schools by the Sierra Club, among 162 institutions that competed.  It has appeared in all five editions of The Princeton Review’s Guide to 332 Green Colleges,  produced in collaboration with the US Green Building Council.

Appalachian State first competed in the 2011 US Solar Decathlon in Washington DC with “the Solar Homestead,” a net-zero energy house selected as “People’s Choice” by public vote on-site and online.  Proving that the team and mentors are business savvy, App State reached an agreement with Deltec Homes  (NC) following the Decathlon for an updated version of  Solar Homestead to be  available as a panelized residential building system that can be shipped for final assembly at the job site.

Appalachian State and Université d’ Angers are old friends in the academic world: they have participated in student and faculty exchanges for 30 years. Just 90 minutes from Paris, the city of Angers is a UNESCO World Heritage site.  The “School of Angers” was already a scholarly institution in the 10th century (yes, 1000 years ago)  and by 1450, it had colleges in law, the arts and medicine! In 1971, all of the preexisting institutes, colleges and schools were federated to form the present Université d’Angers, with 19,000 students on three campuses and two branches. Check out Angers university


Universite d'Angers

Universite d’Angers

Maison Réciprocité – 2 schools, 2 stories

The Appalachian State/Angers Solar Decathlon house is actually two stories in one:

  • How do two academic institutions – 4,000 miles apart — meld the talents and technical acumen of students, faculty and mentors to design and build a solar-powered  house  for the 2014 Solar Decathlon?
  • How is Maison Réciprocité part of the bigger picture in affordable, adaptable contemporary urban design?

We’ll look at both.

Reciprocity= 2 schools working together

Trucks containing Maison Reciprocite are on their way from Antwerp, Belgium, to Versailles

Trucks containing Maison Reciprocite are on their way from Antwerp, Belgium, to Versailles

Six 40-foot modules that comprise Maison Reciprocity (Maison Réciprocité) were loaded onto a cargo ship in early May bound for Europe,  and ultimately by flatbed trailer for reassembly on the grounds of the Chateau of Versailles (home of Louis XIV, the Sun King)  – a site called Cité du Soleil. Students from both schools are involved in the reassembly, landscaping and final touches.

Getting there first required the two universities to figure out how to bridge the distance and create a working partnership for a successful application for the competition.  Then, each had to take the blueprint and create a workplan. Each partner has specific strengths in such areas as design, renewable energy, landscape, marketing, communications and local know-how.

Here’s where coordinated planning – and weekly Skype teleconferencing sessions – gave faculty and students the path for moving ahead.

The inverter gets checked out (converts from DC to AC power)

The inverter gets checked out (converts solar-generated DC power to AC)

Students from Appalachian’s Department of Technology and Environmental Design programs in building science, interior design and appropriate technology led the design effort.  Nine graduate student managers and a cross-disciplinary team of undergrads were engaged  in design, construction, interior design, graphics, and more.

Appalachian’s faculty project director Jamie Russell notes: “We tried to broaden that net as wide as we could,” commenting on the student involvement in the project. “A graphic design class worked on an iPad app for us. Another graphic design class developed our logo.  Grad students from the physics department created, designed and built our entire control system. We had students from across campus working on the project.”

Brainpower and muscle - at work on Maison Reciprocity

Brainpower and muscle – at work on Maison Reciprocity

Led by faculty director François Thibault,  the Angers team brings its own strengths: expertise in the global/life cycle costs of buildings, construction safety, landscape design, whole building automation, indoor air quality, aging in place, 3-d reality models and tours.

Student communications manager Mark Bridges calls the Angers partnership “a beneficial relationship.”  Angers’ students have been working on the Maison’s living green wall, landscaping, gastronomy (there’s a cooking contest in the competition) bilingual signage and communications materials (French/English). They have been essential in understanding the French electrical code so that Maison Réciprocité works under both codes.  Angers and Appalachian State students will team up to lead tours – in French and English — for the public during the competition.  Check out the team (US and France)

Schematic of city rendering using Maison Reciprocity

Schematic of urban rendering using Maison Reciprocity

What if… reimagining the urban townhouse

Maison Réciprocité is a 1200 square foot, two story prototype (3 bedroom, 2 bath)  that has to be a  standout in 10 different juried contests – from architectural design to preparing a meal using solar-powered appliances – but its conceptual framework is larger and more ambitious.

Faculty director Jamie Russell: “Maison Reciprocity is a very urban design. It’s meant to be a three- or four-story row house that would be packed into a fairly dense urban situation, with two stories of living space, an open terrace roof and one floor of commercial space.”

Imagine a block of these houses in East Baltimore, Philadelphia, or Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood,  where infill development and revitalization corridors could benefit from affordable, adaptable and highly energy efficient design.

“Our French partners also are working to sell the house to a social housing company as a demonstration or exhibition unit,” Jamie Russell said.

Technically speaking, the house has three components, as described on the team’s web site:

  • The Urban Shell is an energy-efficient structural envelope constructed of cross-laminated timber, an engineered wood-building system, and continuous exterior layers of polyisocyanurate and rock wool insulation.
  • The CHORD is an integrated building systems core, housing all plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems that service the home.
  • The Living Brise-Soleil is an innovative take on the traditional exterior sun screen (brise soleil in French) where off-the-shelf claddings and renewable systems, such as photovoltaic panels, are used to create an outer “skin” that produces energy and protects the structure.
Rendering of interior/dining space

Rendering of Maison’s interior/dining space

Resources and Links

Read more about Appalachian State and its Solar Powered House

Link to Maison’s Facebook Page and a cool video

Universite d’Angers press material (in French)

Link to the 2014 European  Solar Decathlon

Past Social Decathlon Coverage in Green News Update  (2012-2013)

Green News Update has covered the Solar Decathlons in Spain, China and the US over the past few years. Here are links to our coverage in 2012 and 2013.

2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon— the waiting is over!  Proving that the Solar Decathlon has become a world competition, Team Austria and the AIR House from Czech Republic swept first and third place when all the contests were tallied, with the University of Nevada at Las Vegas in second place. Full story

2013 China’s first-ever Solar Decathlon Asia’s first Solar Decathlon, with  22 teams from 35 universities on five continents competed for the coveted first place at the China Solar Decathlon in Datong, China.  An Australian team named the winner and two other closely ranked competitors (teams in China and Sweden) placing second and third. Full story

2012 European Solar Decathlon (Spain): Solar-powered houses from 18 universities and schools in Europe, Asia, South America and the US competed in the first-ever European Solar Decathlon. Canopea from the Team Rhône Alpes took the top award. Full story and separate photo gallery.

You can follow the 2014 European Solar Decathlon June 28-July 14 competition through the Green News Update website and our direct links to the competition. Come back and visit!