When the Department of Energy’s U.S. Solar Decathlon, a biennial solar-powered home build/design competition for college students, was held in Washington, D.C., on the National Mall (2002, 2005, 2007, 2009) and more recently at nearby West Potomac Park (2011), teams hailing from California colleges and universities weren’t exactly out in full-force.

Joint teams comprised of students from the Southern California Institute of Architecture/Caltech and Santa Clara University/CalArts competed in 2011 and 2009, respectively, while Santa Clara (2007) and Cal Poly (2005) both made solo appearances during the Solar Decathlon’s formative years. So while there hasn’t been a complete dearth of fierce, California-borne competition at the decathlon, there also hasn’t been an abundance. After all, the nation’s capital — rainy, humid, muddy and downright swampy during some past competitions — is a long way from home for West Coast contenders.

Now that the 2013 Solar Decathlon is happening in California in just a few short weeks — at a decommissioned Marine Corps Air Station-turned-urban park south of Los Angeles in Orange County, to be exact — Californian universities and colleges aren’t passing up the opportunity to take hold of a rare home court advantage. A total of four homegrown teams hailing from Southern California and elsewhere in the state are competing to design and build the most attractive, livable, and efficient solar-powered abodes.

Below is a look at the entries from three of the competing Californian teams: Stanford, the University of Southern California, and repeat contender SCI-Arc/Caltech, a joint team that scored sixth overall at the 2011 SD. Also making its third decathlon appearance is Santa Clara University. I’m not including Santa Clara’s entry, Radiant House, here as I previously previewed it in a post highlighting homes designed with retirees as a target market.

Will this year be California’s year to shine at the Solar Decathlon?

Southern Cal Solar Decathlon house

“Targeted to active couples who enjoy sports, surfing, biking, and entertaining outdoors” and “designed to embrace California’s climate and inspire a spirit of extreme living in the context of today’s sustainable movement,” SCI-Arc/Caltech’s DALE (Dynamic Augmented Living Environment) couldn’t get more SoCal if it tried. I mean really, just look at the renderings.

At a mere 600 square feet, it’s an intriguing and bold concept (decidedly more accessible than the team’s 2011 entry, CHIP) clad in a waterproof vinyl exterior skin and composed of two prefab modules mounted along an integrated rail system. The rail system allows for the home to truly “open up” and create a sizable outdoor living space that triples the home’s inhabitable square footage: “DALE redefines the relationship between the indoors and the outdoors so that the inhabitants are more aware how they interact with their home and how their home interacts with the environment.”

Movable partitions suspended from the ceiling tracks add to the home’s “unprecedented” flexibility: "Suspended movable partitions in module ‘A’ gives the user two bedrooms, a living room, an office, or an open space for entertaining while module ‘B’ provides a generous kitchen, sand-room, separate bathroom, and a mechanical room where the real energy efficient magic happens."

On that note, the net-zero DALE is equipped with a 28-panel solar array mounted atop telescoping canopies complete with motorized vertical louver panels that provide shade, passive ventilation and privacy. The home’s high-performance HVAC system boasts solar thermal evacuated tube collectors while a state-of-the-art home monitoring and automation system “meters every aspect of electricity and water consumption in real time, allowing the home and user to regulate their behavior.”

Inspired by classic Southern California typologies such as adobes and bungalows, the SCI-Arc/Caltech team views DALE as an innovative antithesis of the McMansion: "The team presents DALE as an answer to the recent trend of supersized, suburban mansions that elevate cost and material while focusing on largeness. By contrast, DALE reflects an appreciation of and delight in a sustainable living space and aims to reclaim the spirit of Southern California."

University of Southern California's Solar Decathlon house

While DALE is a super-flexible anti-McMansion for active folks who spend most of their time outdoors, USC’s net-zero fluxHome — “a Home for Everyone” — is a clever and dynamic reimagining of the suburban tract home geared toward the perpetually changing nuclear family: "Designed as a viable alternative to the tract house with affordability and energy efficiency in mind, fluxHome combines off-the-shelf, mass customizable components with smart home technology, allowing it to be configured as a starter home for a family of four or adapted to suit a multitude of different lifestyle scenarios."

Clad with a distinctive insulating metallic rain screen facade that minimizes solar gain and sporting vertical gardens and lawns for a touch of much-needed greenery in the home’s centralized courtyard, there’s also plenty of top-notch tech on display at fluxHome including a solar chimney with retractable skylights, a high-efficiency combination heat pump system (heating, cooling, hot water), and a smartphone or tablet-controlled smart home automation system that “ regulates lights, temperature, humidity, energy usage and security.”

The team explains what they were aiming for in the technology department: "fluxHome’s technology give it a unique edge in the affordable housing market by using light and air as materials that improve the indoor quality of life and by combining complicated automation systems for a seamlessly integrated smart home."

Summarizes the USC team:

With fluxHome, the 20th century idea of the ‘machine in the garden’ is turned inside out by placing the garden in the machine, making it an innovative and affordable model for smart growth and sustainable development. Indeed, energy conservation extends far beyond the design of a single dwelling. fluxHome is not only a net-zero prototype but also a new residential typology for our neighborhoods and cities, and for the changing nature of contemporary experience.

Stanford University's Start.Home for Solar Decathlon

First time competitor Stanford University is hitting the competition with a formidable entry geared to "make living green as simple as pushing a button.” From its target market (a young Palo Alto couple) to its innovative energy management interface system created by Computer Science students, Start.Home embraces its Silicon Valley roots head-on while also presenting a new type of eco-friendly starter home that lowers “the entry barrier for an ultra-efficient house:"

Our vision stems from the word ‘start.’ For many visitors to the Solar Decathlon competition, the act of buying a home is the start of a new chapter in their lives. Often times, this is linked to other important events, like the start of a new job, the start of a new family, or the start of a new personal goal or hobby. From designing flexible work/living spaces, to programming intuitive touchscreen interfaces to interact with the home, and developing custom software, we believe that we can build a home with the freedom necessary for a new ‘start.’

Modular, adaptable, and versatile in design, the SIP-based Start.Home is centered around a core module that serves as the centralized brains/guts of the home where the mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) components live. Comparing it to the motherboard of a computer, the Stanford team believes that a prefabricated mechanical room like the Core could revolutionize the construction industry, eliminating inefficiencies and allowing for greater architectural freedom:

Having a standardized core can also improve efficiency in manufacturing and construction. Because all of the major MEP systems are part of a single module, a Core can be assembled by qualified professionals under a controlled environment, which will minimize risks while improving quality and performance. Once the assembly of a Core is finished, the module can be easily loaded onto a truck bed and shipped to its final destination. Upon arrival to its site, the integration between the Core and Start.Home should be a simple plug-and-play.

Other than Core, there’s a lot to like about this handsome starter home for the tech-set including locally salvaged Douglas fir flooring and redwood siding, a greywater system, Andersen 100-Series windows made from recycled sawdust, generous outdoor living space with edible gardens, operable windows, and a design that takes full advantage of natural ventilation and lighting.

And interesting enough, in Start.Home’s post-Solar Decathlon afterlife it will be reassembled at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve, where it will serve as a home for the preserve’s ranger and his family.

Plenty more information on all 20 teams duking it out at Great Orange County Park in Irvine starting on Oct. 3 can be found at the Solar Decathlon homepage. And keep an eye out as I'll be publishing even more sneak peeks of this year's competing homes over the coming weeks.

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