The Competitive Edge of Solar Architecture

Photo by afagen |

Recently, I spent a weekend in Toronto, enjoying the warmth of spring with a nice walk through High Park and Bloor West Village.  A new addition to the area caught my eye since the last time I visited the area—solar panel poles had been installed at each block as an alternative energy source for the region.  I was glad to see small changes being made in the urban setting with respect to going green.

This use of solar power as an emerging ‘greening’ method in urban design intrigued me, and I was fascinated to learn more about how seriously this innovation is being taken on the global scale. 

In Washington, D.C. this fall, twenty post-secondary institutions from around the world are showcasing innovative designs for solar-powered homes which they’ve been developing for the past two years.  This event, called the Solar Decathlon, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and National Renewable Energy Laboratory, was established in 2002.  It aims to educate the public about sustainable options for homes based on solar power and maximizing nature’s role in how a home can function. 

The criteria for competition between the contending universities and colleges includes producing more energy for the home than that which is required for it to operate, possessing highly aesthetic appeal, having marketable potential, and being affordable (within a $250,000USD range).  These components, along with several others, are divided into 10 contests for the event, upon which each institution’s home is allotted points that contribute to its overall grade of sustainability.    

SCI-Arc/Caltech Institute of Technology in California designed a solar-powered home for the competition. Some of their structure’s key selling points include:

  • South end of building angled downward, to increase solar exposure to the roof;
  • Exterior insulation (“outsulation”) creates optimal thermal envelope around home – surrounded by low-cost coded skin that wraps the building (providing a ‘rain screen’);
  • Natural heat flow created based on shape of building to control cooling and heating of the home;
  • Appliances are monitored for efficiency to lower energy costs;
  • Rooms are ‘leveled off’ as a form of separation as opposed to using excess building materials to compartmentalize every living area of the home

Some other entries that are worth considering are from Florida International University, the University of Tennessee, and Tongji University in China.

Florida International University 


University of Tennessee

Tongji University, China

The Solar Decathlon for 2009 attracted over 300,000 visitors to the venue where the homes were displayed.  The winner of the challenge demonstrates the best blend of affordability, consumer appeal, design excellence, optimal energy production, and maximum efficiency. In my mind, the Solar Decathlon serves as a phenomenal way to market modern ideas that people would be willing to incorporate into designs for their current homes, or when building a new home in the future.