Solar Decathlon Booted From the National Mall?

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011
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Setting up shop on the National Mall (Annie Coghill/Solar Decathlon)

Setting up shop on the National Mall in 2009 (Annie Coghill/Solar Decathlon)

The U.S. Department of Energy, sponsor of the prestigious Solar Decathlon — devised to encourage ideas for a more cost-effective, energy-efficient solar house— has announced mid way through this year’s student design competition that they will be abandoning post on the National Mall, where the previous four events have been held since 2002. 20 teams totaling more than 1,000 students have been developing their site-specific entries for over a year, and the news comes as a huge disappointment, and inconvenience. Some have threatened to drop out. Others are working to reverse the decision before a new site is named.

The DOE said in a release that it’s working with the National Parks Service to protect the mall, where prototype green houses were to be designed and built by university students. From the Solar Decathlon:

In support of the historic effort underway to protect, improve, and restore the National Mall, the Department of Energy, in conjunction with the National Park Service, has decided to seek a new site for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011.

And much to the chagrin of students, who have already substantially designed their buildings,the DOE hasn’t yet named an alternative site. Students will soon be finalizing construction documents and building their houses for a fall exhibition, wherever that might be.

One distraught student has created a petition to President Obama to reinstate the National Mall as this year’s venue and over three thousand signatures have already been collected:

With only eight months remaining until the competition, we will face an insurmountable challenge to alter the designs, already in advanced stages, for installation in an as-yet unknown location. In addition, the considerable effort made to source materials and equipment for our solar-powered homes from local manufacturers and, in some cases, to engage the D.C. community in the afterlife of the structures may be for naught.

There’s also a Facebook page dedicated to keeping the Decathlon on the Mall, including email addresses for Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar.

“We’ve been working on this project for over a year and a half,” Reed Finlay, Project Manager of SCI-Arc and Caltech’s entry, told AN‘s Sam Lubell. Their project, CHIP 2011, which includes a snug wrapping of vinyl over cellulose insulation, canted rooftop PV panels, and a sloping cantilever (previously) meant to highlight a view of the Washington Monument,  has involved  60 students and over $100,000 in donations. “The Mall gives exposure and credibility to what we’re doing… They don’t know who they’re messing with,” he added. “I think they’ll be surprised with the backlash.”

A mockup of SCI-Arc and Caltech's Solar Decathlon entry (photo by Sam Lubell)

4 Responses to “Solar Decathlon Booted From the National Mall?”

  1. MattS says:

    Why not move it somewhere more central – are shipping/trucking costs not an issue for teams?

    I nominate Dayton, Ohio.

  2. BradT says:

    I understand that placement on the National Mall brings prestige. But the argument that these houses will need to be redesigned because of a location change is bogus. These houses are designed and trucked in from all over the country, and they are certainly not site-specific. They could be assembled on any piece of flat land in the world, as long as there are electrical and water hook-ups. The solar panels might need to be adjusted a few degrees, but beyond that, I don’t see how this could result in major changes to the designs.

    How about an even more central location? Omaha, here we come!

  3. archie says:

    Design is about adapting to programmatic constraints – this is a good exercise for students! They don’t even know where the new location will be, so it is certainly not an ‘insurmountable challenge’ – especially one that should require the attention of President Obama (I think he has more important political matters to deal with…?!) I know what it feels like to be an architecture student and put my entire life into my projects, but these college kids need to learn to roll with the punches of real life a little bit.

  4. Justin says:

    A drastic change of locale could effect the energy performance of these structures. They are designed with a pre-set location in mind and major decisions are based on the solar angles of that latitude. Even predominant wind patterns during length of the competition are taken into effect. Think of having an egg drop and then changing the height at the last minute.
    From another perspective this is an international competition. Just looking at the list of teams one can see Belgium, China, Canada, and New Zealand are competing. If these universities have put aside specific funds for shipping their entries this change of site could cost significantly more and effect the timing of their whole schedule.

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