January 20 2010

Solar Decathlon 2009: Team Illinois’ Impressive 2nd Place

To the casual observer the 2009 Solar Decathlon looked like a competition between the uber high end and slickly built homes of the Technische Universitat Darmstadt (Germany), the University of California, and the University of Ontario. If anything, the glossy aesthetics gave a sense that these teams spent, or were donated, some serious $$$ to get their house ready for game day. Germany spent between $650-850K. California between $450-650K. Canada between $650 and 850K. And being the Solar Decathlon, a competition with ten categories, it is assumed that teams would allocate money according to the weight of the various points available, meaning that a magnificent looking house would be equally fit for the remainder of the contests. Not so? Well at least the situation was not so straight forward?

You can't judge a book by its cover. Fair enough, these houses looked good. So why then does the final ranking not list them as first, second and third. The reason is Team Illinois and its second place finish. Illinois stood awkwardly on the winners podium between the popular kids of SD2009 and at just $250-450K the house was by far one of the cheapest in the competition. Amazing then that Illinois came in second place, just a scant 9 points behind second time champion Team Darmstadt. Kudos to Illinois for providing a sustainable house at such an affordable cost.

But there is more to the story. What Germany and Illinois have in common, besides extremely close scores, is Passive House! Yes both of the houses were designed to meet the Passive House standard. The German house was not certified but was built by the university where Passive House was pioneered. The University of Illinois is the stomping ground of the Passive House Institute US headed by Katrin Klingenberg who was a design consultant on the team.

So ignoring aesthetics for a moment. If you wanted to build a super efficient house, would you not choose Passive House? - The building standard winner of the last two Solar Decathlons? And would you not try to make the house as affordable as possible? Given that an added $400K might only get you a slightly more efficient home? It is at least worth considering...

In my opinoin, Illinois used the Solar Decathlon to show a cost effective method of achieving energy efficiency and deserves more credit for doing so. Take notice because I suspect we will see the development of a number of affordable Passive House projects in the coming years.

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