UNDER THE BLANKET OF NIGHT on September 28, more than 100 “big-rigs” lined the streets surrounding the National Mall in Washington, D.C., waiting for the stroke of midnight. And as September 29 officially arrived, 18 college and university teams from around the world anxiously watched as two years of their design, research, and testing efforts were offloaded in preparation for the Solar Decathlon competition held October 7 through 16 of this year.

Over the next several days, the Mall was transformed into a “solar village” as 18 single-family residential units were constructed along both sides of a recreated neighborhood street. And by partnering with the NAHB, a first-time sponsor, the event's primary sponsor, the Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, plans to showcase the ways that renewable energy is applicable to mainstream construction.

During the event, teams compete to see who has been able to build and operate the best designed and most energy-efficient solar powered home. And for the builder community, it provides an opportunity to experience the cutting edge architecture, engineering, and technology that can be applied to homes that generate their own energy. “The innovative technologies these students will present demonstrate that the widespread use of renewable energy to power our homes may be closer than we think,” says Samuel Bodman, U.S. secretary of energy.

Fresh on the heels of the NAHB's Model Green Homebuilding Guidelines version 1.0—which includes a section dedicated to giving a builder credit, from a green building standpoint, for use of solar technology—the decathlon's timing couldn't have been better.

“The goal of the competition is to bring what has been a fringe segment of the construction industry to the forefront, both from an energy efficiency standpoint and from a consumer acceptability standpoint,” says John Loyer, the construction, codes, and standards specialist of the energy and green building department advocacy group at the NAHB. “You have an enormous amount of interest to include solar technology in the states that offer incentives to builders and homeowners. Our organization felt it was important to allow our members insider access into this competition to see what can be done from a solar standpoint.”

On October 7, the decathlon teams previewed their projects to the trade during Building Industry Day. “There is really a plethora of things we're doing very specifically geared toward builders,” says Loyer, citing the tours and presentations that take place at the event before the decathlon opened to the public October 8. And while the homes themselves are custom built, both Richard King, the DOE's director of the Solar Decathlon project, and Loyer agree there is a lot for the big builder community to take away. “I think it will be very valuable to a number of the high-production builders on a number of levels,” says Loyer.

Coinciding with the event opening to the public, judging of the university team's projects began in 10 separate contests. And unlike the objectives of the first-ever 2002 decathlon, this year's homes need to be attractive as well as efficient. “One of the biggest barriers to solar energy is esthetics,” says King. “That's why we have tweaked the rules from the last competition. This year, we place more value on curb appeal than we did before. This isn't just an academic exercise, but we are looking for ways to transfer this technology into mainstream construction.”

To that end, judges will award points for architecture, livability, comfort, as well as power generation for heating and cooling, water heating, and powering lights and appliances. Each solar house must also power an electric car.

For more information on the event, go to www.solardecathlon.org.