While the biennial U.S. Solar Decathlon has always been held on American soil (prior to this year’s move to Southern California, the event called Washington, D.C. home — I suppose the dramatic change of scenery was fortuitous considering that D.C. isn’t in the best of shape right now), collegiate teams hailing from outside of the U.S. have played a part in the solar-powered home design/build competition pretty much since the beginning with past contenders hailing from Spain, China, New Zealand, Belgium, and Montreal. And of, course, there’s Team Germany, who laufen-ed away with first place honors in 2007 and 2009.
This year’s U.S. Solar Decathlon, which kicks off tomorrow at Orange Country Great Park in Irvine, is no different with a total of four non-American teams, two Canadian and two European, duking it out against 16 homegrown contenders (including a handful from California). Lucky for everyone involved, Gemany is not returning.
Here’s a look at the entries from two Solar Decathlon teams, Team Austria (Vienna University of Technology) and Team Ontario (Queen’s University, Carleton University, and Algonquin College), who traveled to sunny Southern California with passports in hand and solar-powered homes in tow. I previously featured the homes of Team Alberta and Team Czech Republic in previous posts that you can read here and here.
And on the topic of traveling long distances, I sadly won’t be able to make the cross-country trek to visit the U.S. Solar Decathlon in the flesh as I did for the 2011 and 2009 editions when it was in D.C. However, I’ll be checking in daily with the latest scores and news out of Irvine and posting updates as the competition progresses. 
Without further adieu, here’s a peak at the entries from Solar Decathlon teams Austria and Ontario, complete with audio/video presentations:
Team Austria
If one of the Solar Decathlon contests were to be for best team photo, Team Austria would win hands down. I’m kind of obsessed (what in the world is that creature top row center?) And judging from what I’ve read about the team’s home, LISI (Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation), this photogenic group of Wieners may prove to be a formidable contender in the Decathlon’s actual juried and measured contests.
Billed as a “House for You Wherever You Are,” LISI is a patio-heavy, plus-energy dwelling that produces enough juice annually to also power electric bikes and cars if needed. It’s also mighty versatile, geared for placement in both the crowded city (a high-tech abode equipped for small urban lots) and the Austrian countryside (a chic modular chalet for lake and mountains resorts).

LISI is divided into three main zones — a flexible living area, a service core consisting of the home’s mechanical systems and appliances, and dual patios on the north and south that are surrounded by an automatically controlled façade system that provides shading and privacy when needed — and boasts an impressive array of energy-saving bells and whistles that are sure to earn the team high marks in the all-important engineering contest: An energy-recovery ventilator, dual air-water heat pumps, a climate-regulating subfloor system, and a shower tray that “recovers thermal energy from drain water through a heat exchanger, significantly reducing the net energy consumption needed for daily hygiene.” (Don’t think I’ve seen that one before).
However, it’s Team Austria’s emphasis on building materials that really stands out to me. And by building materials, I mean wood. I’ve been seeing a lot of the wood-centric, carbon-neutral projects as of late and LISI, which features both wood construction and insulation (cellulose), really seems to celebrate the versatility and durability of tree-borne building materials:
As a natural product, wood is the ideal material for a prefabrication of houses — ease of use and transport. Under the aspect of the conscious handling of raw materials, the LISI house is designed to use all parts of the tree — from heartwood to the bark. Wood is therefore not only used as a construction material, but also inside the walls and ceiling panels, or in the furniture. Thus, the wooden structure is can also be felt and smelled.
It’s worth pointing out that this lovely, high-performance wooden box is designed to, when broken down into its core modular elements for transport, fit inside a box of another variety: a shipping container.

Team Ontario

ECHO House from Team Ontario is one Solar Decathlon entry that really wears its market strategy on its ultra-efficient sleeve (or 7.8kW PV array-supporting sloped exostructure, in this case):
ECHO is an Ecological Home built for the next generation of homeowners. It is the home we envision ourselves moving into over the next 10 years and the home we hope to raise our families in. Our generation is sometimes referred to as the ‘Echo Boomers,’ which reflects our opportunity to improve upon generations past and make strides towards a more sustainable future. ECHO further reflects the sustainable design philosophy, which calls for multiple iterations that improve upon a previous design. It is our hope that ECHO will represent but one iteration in a design that will be continuously improved upon by future generations. 
Good stuff. When can I move in?

Aside from its starter home-for-Millennials appeal, there’s a lot to like about the net-zero ECHO House. While not the most compelling Solar Decathlon entrant in terms of aesthetics, Team Ontario makes up for it in innovation and technology. One of the more notable aspects of the home is its building envelope that features a vacuum insulated panel (VIP)-based double wall design. Created to address Ontario’s rather brutal winters and toasty summers, the R-value is 55 — over twice the insulating capacity of a conventional home. For all you wall dorks out there, these are walls.
In addition to an advanced — and somewhat complicated to explain— integrated mechanical system, ECHO House also takes home automation and energy monitoring to the next level. Like most other Solar Decathlon teams, Team Ontario developed a proprietary energy monitoring system that can be controlled by tablet or smartphone. However, they’ve also developed a predictive shading system that uses weather forecasts to determine the optimal shading placement on the southern glazing:
This unique technology takes into account both energy and day lighting performance, as it reduces the amount of heat that enters the home during hot days, while still maximizing day light in the living space. The shades prevent heat from entering ECHO, and when paired with fixed overhang shading, daylight still enters freely, allowing for a sunlit interior. 
Just a heads up, Team Ontario: the weather over the next two weeks in Irvine is looking to be hot.

For more info on all 20 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon teams and for details on the event itself which, yes, will go on despite the the government shutdown, head on over to the Solar Decathlon homepage. The general public can tour the homes and chat with the teams during visiting hours from 11 am to 7 pm, Oct. 3 through Oct. 6 and Oct. 10 through Oct. 13.

And now, let the games begin!

More 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon previews on MNN:

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