I drove across the sparse dirt roads that once separated the orange groves that defined South Orange County, kicking up a cloud of dust and wondering if the winds that had shut things down just one day prior would once again put the event on hold. But the blustery Santa Anas had calmed down. Yes, it was unseasonably warm for early October. And yes, we were in the middle of a government shutdown. But that didn’t seem to deter the thousands of volunteers and visitors who converged at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California for the 2013 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.


The Solar Decathlon is a biennial collegiate challenge, where teams are tasked to design and build practical, affordable, and energy-efficient solar-powered homes. This is more than just an engineering exercise. The student teams are judged based on a set of criteria, including: architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort, water usage, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance. This year’s challenge featured 19 homes that were designed, built, and transported to California for re-assembly by teams from 28 colleges and universities.


As I walked down Decathlete Way, flanked by houses to each side, I was amazed at the size of the crowd. I had thought that visitors would be able to wander through each home, like lookie loos during a Sunday morning open house. Instead, there were lines in front of each house, with wait times anywhere from five minutes to twenty minutes. Once inside, small groups were given guided tours by the students, highlighting the team’s strategies and energy-conservation measures, while answering questions along the way.


It was awe-inspiring to see the innovation and analysis, the attention to detail and build quality of each of the houses. There were a number of common strategies used in almost every house, such as shading and enhanced insulation. There were also a number of teams that looked at more “out of the box” solutions, such as incorporating phase change materials. Seven of the homes featured radiant heating/cooling systems. The University of Santa Clara’s house was even called “Radiant House.” A number of other homes utilized grey water reclamation and fire sprinkler systems.


As I went from house to house, I was eager to see what the University of North Carolina at Charlotte had come up with. It was during the summer of 2012 when UNC-Charlotte approached Uponor, looking for some guidance on how to design, install, and control a radiant cooling system. We had had several discussions and I even got to meet with a number of team members and faculty advisors during the ASPE Convention in Charlotte last fall. In the end, they opted to go with a capillary-type radiant cooling system for ease of installation, but they used a lot of our information for their analysis. It was nice to see UNC-Charlotte win the People’s Choice Award.


Another notable winner was the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. UNLV’s DesertSol house featured solar thermal collectors to serve a radiant floor heating system and a multi-purpose fire sprinkler system, supported by Uponor. UNLV took second place overall, edged out by Team Austria.


Attending the 2013 Solar Decathlon was an amazing experience. It was great to see the next generation of engineers and architects embrace smart building strategies and energy-conservations measures such as radiant heating and cooling. In an age where we are often critical of today’s youth, it was encouraging to see such bright and industrious minds at work.