This past Sunday morning I boarded a shuttle headed towards West Potomac Park, site of this year’s Solar Decathlon competition. I wanted to experience the event, now in its 5th iteration, from the visitor’s perspective—so I grabbed a map of the Solar Village and joined a line of fellow sightseers.

deck floor of Florida team house

Each house has personalized details--like Florida International's etchings inscribed on the deck floor

I should note that D.C.’s quasi-monsoon season (relentless rain and humidity almost every day), has not dampened enthusiasm for the event. The Solar Village has been attracting a good amount of traffic (about 35,000 visitors came out to see the houses this past Saturday).

Despite persistently cloudy skies— the teams’ solar arrays were still generating a good amount of power. And, several students pointed out that several houses are collecting the abundant rainwater to replenish the greywater recycling systems for house landscaping needs.

Rainy days aside, getting to witness firsthand the ingenuity and creativity that went into the student’s houses, as well as on-the-spot reactions from the general public—was fascinating. Each house has unique characteristics that give it a personalized feel, but overall I noticed a few recurring design themes present (in addition to solar technology) in almost every house, including:

People waiting in line to see house at the Solar Village

Lines at the Solar Village on Sunday

  • Lights out: despite the cloudy skies I mentioned earlier, several houses on the day I visited maintained bright interiors without a single light on in the house. I credit expansive (yet insulated) windows and clever use of daylighting for this achievement
  • Passive Design abounds: passive house principles—the use of design elements like natural ventilation, south-facing windows and overhang to reduce energy consumption was a mainstay.
  • Not just solar: energy-efficiency was the buzzword of the day and, Energy Star-rated appliances and energy-efficient lighting were a given.
Photo of Team Tidewater Virginia's sunspace

Inside Team Tidewater Virginia's sunspace: in the summer it acts as a porch, in the winter it acts as a heat sink--absorbing and dispersing heat throughout the house

If you’re in the D.C. area, definitely schedule (public exhibit hours and dates here) sometime during your lunch break or weekend to take a guided tour of these innovative, unique and inspiring houses. And, if you’re following the competition from afar—stay actively engaged via SolarDecathlon.gov. There you’ll find video walkthroughs of the homes as well as daily tallies of team scores and standings.

So, you have my perspective on this fascinating event—share yours in the comments below.

Appalachian State team member talking to visitors

Appalachian State team member talks to visitors

Erin Pierce is a communications specialist for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy