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An Upset at the Solar Decathlon Europe: Virginia Tech Takes the Honors



Virginia Tech Pulls Surprising Win at Solar Decathlon Europe

It is not quite the same magnitude of an upset as if Ghana were to win the World Cup this year, but we do have an upset of sorts to report in the solar world. Winning by a hairline margin of less than a point, Virginia Tech took home the first prize on Sunday at Europe's Solar Decathlon held in Madrid, Spain. It was a surprising win for the US team because less than a year ago, the same submission-an 800 square foot unit called the Lumenhaus-did not fare well at all. According to Inhabitat, "the team finished 13th overall out of 20 teams" at the US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, but "In the ensuing months between October and May, the team tweaked and improved their overall design." And tweak they did, for a total score of 811.3 points in Madrid, just barely sliding them above University of Applied Sciences Rosenheim's IKAROS house which "earned superior marks for electricity balance and the use of their solar system."

The Solar Decathlon competition is held to see which university from across the globe can come up with the most "innovative solar-powered green home" says the Examiner. This year's competition brought together 17 incredible submissions, ranging in shape from an efficient compact box by Team France to an elevated oblong house made by the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. The house, which abandoned traditional form in favor of natural ventilation, looked curiously like a headless armadillo. Style factors such as these were weighted along with other considerations. According to Huffington Post, "the teams [are] graded on their ability to minimize their energy use, innovative architecture and engineering, sustainability, and more."

Though it didn't blow away its competitors in the other nine categories, Virginia Tech's Lumenhaus trumped in the architecture category for its elegance and ability to shape-shift, creating a graceful indoor-outdoor flow. Its silvery façade and walls that glow with blue light at night seem to take the onlooker into a Jetson-like future, where sustainable, natural living is married with sleek aesthetics. 

The roof of solar panels used convert sunlight into energy for the home "can automatically adjust its pitch to receive the optimum solar gain," according to Inhabitat, and the house takes advantage of other sustainable practices such as natural water collection and filtration. But is a home like this reasonable to live in? "The 800 sq foot home includes one bedroom, a bathroom, and a kitchen and dining room. Even though it isn't much space, it still seems spacious inside."

Writers at Treehugger who attended the event certainly weren't fans of Lumenhaus, calling it "over-teched with its aerogel walls, electrochromic glass, and ground source heat pump...a serious engineering overkill," but the jury of experts in architecture and solar systems thought differently. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, they deemed the Lumenhaus "the most efficient" and lauded the building because it "presents an open distribution that connects the inhabitants of the house with the external environment". 

Though, no one seems to want to give the victory to Tech wholeheartedly. This is the first time the event was hosted in Europe, and writers at Inhabitat speculate that this may have affected the quality of the submissions. Commenting on the fact that even though Tech won, the score was still 300 points lower than Germany's winning score in the US, they state: "It seems the competitors in the Europe competition are slightly behind in terms of sophistication, engineering." To see if this claim holds any water, we'll have to wait and see how Virginia Tech fares in the big leagues when the Solar Decathlon is held on the National Mall again next year.