Solar Decath: Icarus Hits the Sun

by Pamela Goode

Solar House CNet

“Well, it’s been a blast, but I’m audi.” So claimed SmartHouse Icarus (pictured above), the Solar Decathlon Project House designed and built by 83 Georgia Tech students and displayed for 10 days on the Mall in Washington, DC. He’s on the road again, traveling, again, with a score of spare tires and a few languorous axles, heading back for the land of Sweet Tea. “How did he fare?” you ask. “Closer,” she smiled, with a glittering eye.

Twenty schools. Ten competitions. One sun. Everyone wins. Really catchy slogan. And true, I suppose, on some level.

So the Department of Energy invites 20 universities across the globe to compete in the creation of a home completely powered by solar energy. They have about two years to design, finance ($750,000!) and finish the house, get it to DC, and then be tested and judged in the areas of Architecture, Engineering, Market Viability, Communications, Comfort Zone, Appliances, Hot Water, Lighting, Energy Balance, and Getting Around. In basic terms: How It Looks, How It Works, How It Sells, How It’s Marketed, How It Feels, How It Cooks, How It Washes, How It Glows, How Well It Sucks Solar, and How Many Miles It can Drive a Car. A company in Colorado set up all the measuring devices and procedures for the objective monitoring that continued throughout the competition. Except, you know, that water objectively measuring 120 degrees in the University of Maryland house might be awarded 25 points, and water objectively measuring 120 degrees in, say, the Georgia Tech house, might be awarded, say 2.5 points. Keep in mind that this is a US Government-sponsored competition; when one team member questioned the point inconsistencies, he was told, “We can award them any way we want to.”

Okay, so the kids, and by kids I mean 20-25 year olds fresh, young, idealistic, inspired, dedicated, educated, cracker jack and creative enough to design fully functional homes so technically and artistically advanced that the Department of Energy is paying Big Bucks for the results, these kids work their hearts out for 18 months because they believe in the project. Hmmm, let’s um, well . . . let’s just screw ’em.

When the schools were selected, they were, in the manner of all things fair, given explicit guidelines on what the contest entailed, how the houses would be judged, rules, point systems, blah, blah blah. Okay, so they’re in school, right? Every day. They’re used to being told what to do and being graded on the ability to follow directions and excel in a box, so to speak. So the kids design the houses, spec the systems, and promote the heck out of their Jetson pads. According to plan, they keep the DOE apprised of every step along the way. So the DOE, in the manner of all Good Government Agencies, knows exactly what each house looks like, runs like, blinks like, and thinks like, months before the first solar battery hits Constitution Avenue. What do they do with this information? They change the rules. They don’t tell the kids they changed the rules. They tell the judges. “Please check for H, M, and Q,” knowing full well, in that Government-y way, exactly which houses have H, M, and Q, and which don’t, because, of course, H, M, and Q were never mentioned in the original specifications.

Georgia Tech’s 800-square-foot Icarus house was built with clerestory lights surrounding the building, three full glass doors, two windows, three translucent walls, a translucent roof, solar-powered outdoor lights, and LED lighting within each wall. It was flooded with light during the day, and beautifully lit at night. In objective light measurements, it scored 100% for daylight, night light, and energy usage (nil). Subjective judging made up the rest of the score. The judges comments were suppressed for this contest only. Icarus came in dead last for lighting. “Can’t sell natural light,” was overheard.

And then there was the Debacle of the Towel. But I don’t want to get you too excited 🙂 Okay, okay.

Drying towels was a 20 point competition. GaTech, as did several other schools, bought one of those combo washer/dryers to be energy and space-efficient. Except, you know, they don’t really dry. The (again, 20 points) contest specified that the towels had to be DRY, but it didn’t say how. The kids were allowed to hang the towels outside for primo energy savings, AS LONG AS when the judges came by, they made certain to say aloud “and this is where we dry our towels.” GaTech went the extra step and hung a towel on the cable of their deck railing to demonstrate (top rails were not allowed to be used for the 20 POINT drying competition, don’t ask me why — too obvious, I guess). All is well.

Now, when the judges came by GaTech to check for dry towels the first day, all 12 required towels had been washed and were now happily drying in the free-solar-energy breezy 80 degree day, while hanging on the specified cables of the railing. Here’s the response:

“You only hung one towel out when we approved your drying system. You can’t hang 12, only one.”

Okay. The kids remove eleven towels and take them into the living room, as there is no rule that says towels can’t be inside, dry or wet. They leave one towel on the cable drying. When it’s dry, they switch it out with a wet one. They dry all 12 towels, perfectly, if ridiculously, one at a time.

The judges come by and say, “I saw towels in your living space. We’re docking you 25 points.” Remember, the contest only awarded 20 points. So they not only lost every point for successfully drying 12 towels energy-free to toasty condition, they were docked five more for conforming to beaurocratic stupidity.

The “Getting Around” contest involved driving the supplied electric car as many miles as possible each day with left-over stored energy. One school over-inflated their tires for added gas mileage. This was expressly prohibited in the rules. They were discovered, and docked .25 points. POINT 25 for cheating. 25 for following arbitrary rules.

In the end, Georgia Tech placed 5th and was awarded 6th place (“Oops, yes, we did make an error counting the points, but we’ve already released the names to the press, so too bad.”) First place winner Germany and second place University of Maryland truly deserved the recognition they received for splendid houses in every category. I just wish they could have reigned supreme in a fairly conducted test. But they’re just kids, right? Oh, did I mention that the penalty for questioning a judge’s decision was 10 points, regardless of whether or not the ruling was in your favor? That’ll teach them to ask questions (or to crave knowledge, elucidation, enlightenment, new paths, discoveries, theories, or . . . wait, wasn’t that what this contest was all about?).

I’m thrilled that the kids did so well. Show me 20 handfuls of adults who could have put together these marvels and I’ll laugh in your face. Kids think outside the box. Every time. And they’re the winners here. But make no mistake. They’re arriving back at the universities a little less believing, a little less trusting, a little less idealistic, a little less willing to take the next Big Risk, all because a few somebodies decided it didn’t much matter if they changed the rules on a few kids.

My favorite final tidbits:

The major sponsor of the contest was BP, who did a splendid job of promoting the competition and gave out an award of its own, The Green Award, for, you know, environmental stuff. The award went to Georgia Tech’s Icarus. Although the house uses very little energy, it was built for durability (no maintenance, no replacements) rather than “green.” It’s made almost entirely of plastic.

As specified, the students were responsible for designing the architecture and systems only. The vast majority of schools contracted out major portions of their construction. Georgia Tech’s Icarus was 100% student-built. They fabricated every aluminum panel. They nailed the tar out of every bolt (don’t ask). 100% student-built. No points. They just did it.

Cost of transporting just the house shell (excluding the two semi’s, four U-Hauls, and 25 students) from Atlanta to DC: $50,000. Each way.

Icarus arrives in Atlanta on Sunday, and Monday morning Jason will begin, again, reassembling the house in front of the Architecture building on campus where it will be on view for one year, at which time it will be moved, again, to its new home. Sales price: $200,000.