A Visit to the Nerd Village

Evelyn and I had a nice surprise a few weeks ago, when we stepped off the Metro and popped above ground onto the National Mall. We walked right into the opening weekend of the 2005 Solar Decathlon. As an engineer who takes conservation seriously, I was immediately intruiged. Evelyn and I ended up spending the whole day there, and the following Saturday, too! (It’s just as well, since the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building we intended to visit is still being de-asbestosized).

It was a small temporary village, a Hooverville populated by nerds. Eighteen small houses, adorned with solar panels, stood in two lines along the Mall between the Castle and 14th Street. Each house was built by a team of college students and associates, and brought to the Mall for the week-long competition. The teams came from the USA, Canada, and Spain, making this year’s contest truly international. This was the second Solar Decathlon; the first contest was in 2002, and the next is planned for 2007. It was a wise decision to host the contest on the National Mall, where thousands of people who would otherwise ignore it could get up close and personal with innovations and new ideas. They had to share space on the Mall with other demonstrations; we found the skateboarding ministry more annoying than the Millions More Movement.

The Decathlon itself was not just about solar power, but about conservation, social awareness, and redefining the 21st Century home. Each team used their house to generate power via photoelectric cells, and lived of that power for a week. The teams did not actually live in the houses during the contest, but merely performed contest tasks during the week. Each house used recycled materials, biomass products, native local flora, and sustainable resources whenever they could, while avoiding more wasteful materials such as vinyl. The contest limited each home to 800 square feet of total floorspace, including utility spaces. Each team got to use an electric car during the contest, charged from their own home’s power supply. Houses were judged on habitability, comfort zone, lighting levels, heat balance, documentation, and even got extra points for the mileage they put on their electric car.

I felt sorry all week for the poor contestants, though. Right as they were setting up, a massive overcast front moved into the DC area, ending the two month drought the capital had been experiencing. It continued to be overcast right until the very end of the competition. It is nature’s cruel irony that we had nothing but sun for several weeks, and when we wanted sun the most, we got nothing but clouds. Poor solar teams!

I know what you’re thinking…what were the houses like? Luckily I had my camera with me, and took copious pictures which are featured (or will soon be featured) on this site.

As I said, each house had a limited size, so they all felt small, like an apartment or condo. The tight arrangements used added to the cramped and boxed-in feeling inside the houses, but some of them were surprisingly roomy. Most teams made creative use of space, and used up all their scrap materials. Each team had a flavor of decor, a sense of style all their own. Teams approached their houses with design philosophies ranging from the mathematical to retromodern to modular.

But what was really cool were the innovations! Some of the most common ones could be done in conventional homes; there’s no need to design the entire house around them! Not only were teams focused on collecting as much energy as they could, even more effort was devoted to minimizing the use of energy in the first place. Nowhere was this more obvious than in two areas: appliances and water management.

Most of the houses sported induction cooktops. These look just like one-piece electric stoves, but they are 50% more efficient (in other words, they use half the power of a electric stove to do the same thing). They work by using electromagnets to create a magnetic field in the area of the frying pan. This magnetic field induces an electric current inside the metal pan. As this current passes through the pan, the resistance of the metal to this flow of energy causes the pan itself to heat up, thus cooking the pan’s contents. The ‘burner’ itself does not get hot at all, except for the heat it receives by having a hot pan on top of it. In one picture I took, I put my hand directly on the burner area of the induction stove, and it was only mildly heated! This is safer to have around children, yet another bonus! The downside to this is that it only works with metals that are magnetic, like iron and stainless steel. For those of you using copper or aluminum, the energy savings you get by using an induction cooktop is worth the investment in new pots and pans! If I ever build my dream home, I certainly want one of these cooktops!

Water management was another large issue for most of the design teams. In the past, water heating tubes, which collect the sun’s rays to heat water, had to be mounted on the side of the house, away from the shade. However, they have since figured out that they work just fine when placed under the solar panels. Somehow the thermal energy of the sunlight still penetrates solar panels. So instead of that thermal energy infiltrating your house through the roof, the water heating tubes are collecting it and banking that energy for your morning shower! Most homes also paid attention to wastewater. The water that goes down your drains has already been heated. Why let that energy simply slip away? Many houses were using the heat from wastewater to heat incoming water, thus reclaiming the otherwise lost heat energy. Interestingly, there’s a 30-year-old apparatus for ships called an economizer, which essentially does the same thing with the hot exhaust gases to heat the incoming combustion air. I’m glad to see that houses are starting to apply the same principle!

Many houses took this one step farther by using a washer/dryer combo unit, which captures the heat of the wash water and uses it to dry your clothes in the same machine. There’s no need to take your laundry out of the washer and put it in the dryer; it’s already in the dryer! Better yet, it’s ventless, so it can be used in all those condos and apartments where dryer venting is the one excuse keeping tenants from having an in-unit washer and dryer! Did I mention that it’s far more efficient than a conventional washer and dryer? I, however, wonder how well it actually dries clothing, so I’d want to test drive a combos machine first before buying one.

Another innovation I really liked to see were the new kinds of materials being displayed by several houses. The first one to catch my eye, and easily the most common, was bamboo. One house team told us that all the bamboo used in the floor of the entire house could be regrown in only 6 years, instead of the 3 or 4 decades that hardwood trees would take. The bamboo looked great, and felt nice and strong too! More than half the teams used bamboo, from flooring to shelves to bedframes. Another favorite material of mine was LVL, a structural beam made of compressed scrap lumber shreds that would otherwise go straight to the landfill. The upshot of this is that it contains no formaldehyde, which offgasses from conventional treated lumber into your home and you breathe it in for years. LVL is safer for your home, and I actually liked its textured appearance. Many houses also used plastic lumber, tiles made of recycled glass, recycled concrete countertops, boards made from cornhusks, panels made from wheat, and even soy-based insulation.

However, the most innovative material was a type of plastic wall used by Virginia Tech in three of their exterior walls. This material was opaque like a milk jug, which you couldn’t see through, but still let light pass through, so each wall was able to act as if it were made of glass bricks. The walls provided a pleasant amount of interior light without sacrificing privacy. The walls were filled with expanded silica for insulation, and the walls contained motorized shades that could be raised or lowered with the push of a button. And just for kicks, they installed colored LED lights in the base of each wall, and did a nifty light show after dark, with every color of the rainbow!

My favorite architectural design goes to the University of Missouri, for their house inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright and mathematics. Theirs was the house I felt most comfortable in, and looked very stylish. The design team based the house style on the Fibonacci sequence and the Golden Ratio, which they discovered were quite common in Wright’s designs too.

The New York Institute of Technology bravely tried new technology… hydrogen! Even though they knew it was less efficient than batteries, they used their excess electricity to split water via electrolosis into hydrogen gas, which they saved in compressed bottles. The hydrogen was later used for water heating, and in fuel cells to generate electricity again if the need arose. Their hydrogen expert, a King’s Pointer, told us that they wanted to help showcase and promote a fledging technology, even at the risk of thwarting their chances of winning the contest.

Of course, there was all kinds of other things too, both good and bad. The University of Michigan paid almost no attention to ergonomics. Their house was full of odd angles and unusable spaces. They didn’t even have a door to their bathroom! The University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth had some "transportation difficulties" on the way to DC, leaving them with an unintended split level! Poor team, they didn’t stand a chance with that house-sized gap all around them! The University of Texas had polished mesquite flooring, and an amazing striated ceiling. The Puerto Rican house had a gentle breeze blowing through every corner of their house, even the laundry room!

If there’s one message I want people to get from seeing these solar houses, it’s that many of the best and most effective ways to conserve power can be done in existing homes. Solar panels, efficient appliances, sustainable materials, safer lumber…all this is right here, right now! These are not visions of the future, but calls to action today! If you are a homeowner, you owe it to yourself to look at these new technologies. The money you save will be your own, and the planet will thank you for it!

Evelyn and I had a great time visiting the houses. Heck, we went twice! We were even interviewed by the satellite TV channel CurrentTV! (If anyone saw us… Hi, we’re on the Al Gore network!) I can’t wait for the next contest! Meanwhile, the solar houses will all go back to their respective schools, to be used for environmental education, long-term system testing, charity housing, and emergency shelters for Katrina victims. I hope a future contest focuses on larger homes, to show that efficient houses do not have to be small and ultra-modern shacks. I think people want to see that a solar home can still be large and spacious for a family of five. As one man in my tour group kept asking, "Gee, this is all great, but how can I raise a family in something the size of my garage"?

Well, enough about solar homes. It’s been a busy time, with the High Holidays having come and gone. We attended the Young Professionals services at Beth El, which were a refreshing change of pace from the typical services. As an "honorary Jew" as my officemate calls me, I did really well on my first Yom Kippur fast.

I have also been approached by an online gamer, Aaron, who’s curious about my card games Warriors and Ferrball’s Mansion. I’ve been dumping many hours into improving both those projects. I’ve decided that my old Warriors website will be phased out, and replaced with a new site devoted to all my game design projects. Hopefully I can have this done over the next six months. Of course I’m also planning a wedding too. We ordered our wedding rings online, and we expect them to arrive in the mail on Tuesday. Evelyn says that I might be turning into Groomzilla! Watch out!!

During the last week, I’ve been walking to work and back each day, as long as it isn’t raining. It’s great! I’m getting exercise outdoors, saving gasoline and mileage on my car. But the best part is how refreshing it feels. By the time I get home, all the stress from work has been walked off!

As a parting gift this week, I offer up one more online diversion. Bon Appetit!

THIS JUST IN… I am one of the winners of the Fluxx Buxx contest! My 14-name entry was big enough to score me a free deck of Eco Fluxx. Thanks, Looney Labs, and for all those who helped me!

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