While it’s certainly not usual for multiple schools from the same state — or Canada — to compete in the Department of Energy’s U.S. Solar Decathlon, this year’s collegiate solar-powered home design/build showdown is a touch unique because, as mentioned earlier this week, a total of four student teams hailing from California universities will soon be descending on Great Orange County Park in Irvine, Calif. for the event.

Other than that, a state in the complete opposite corner of the country with a climate that’s just a smidge different than that of Southern California will also have more than one team in the running: Vermont. Who would have thought? The second least populous state in the nation is showing up in multiples at a biannual event that, for the first time in its history, is taking place in the most populous state.

Vermont’s two Solar Decathlon teams are first-time contender Norwich University, the oldest private military college in the United States and the birthplace of the ROTC, and Middlebury University, a small — and eco-minded — liberal arts school that placed fourth overall at the 2011 Solar Decathlon with the super New England-y Self-Reliance.

This should be interesting. Here’s a look at the competing homes, one focused on affordability and one on community, from the Middlebury and Norwich teams.

Middlebury College positively rocked the 2011 Solar Decathlon, coming in first in the Market Appeal, Communications, and Home Entertainment contests (placing 11th in the Engineering contest prevented the team for an even higher overall standing). Self-Reliance was also one of my personal favorite homes that I visited during a media preview tour. That being said, the stakes are high and the anticipation great for Middlebury as the school returns with InSite, “a home for local living.”

While Self-Reliance revolved around the marriage of New England tradition with 21st century sustainability, InSite is all about keeping it local and upholding the team’s belief that community is a vital “natural resource” and that sustainability “is as much about people as it is about energy.”

Good stuff. Reads the team’s mission statement: “Our design was inspired by our hometown of Middlebury, VT where the community is friendly, approachable, and engaging. Team Middlebury believes that towns such as ours can contribute to social, economic, and environmental sustainability. “

Riffing off of Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Modern Architecture, the Middlebury Team conceived 5 Points of InSite Design as a guiding design philosophy. As the team explains the 5 Points of InSite Design — Live in a Walkable Community, Prioritize Social Space, Centralize Energy Systems, Engage the Street, and Use Local Materials — are universal and can be “implemented in every community and on multiple scales.”

Clad in reclaimed Vermont barn wood siding and topped with an insulating green roof that manages stormwater runoff, InSite is an attractive and comfortable home that emphasizes locally sourced materials (maple flooring harvested from the Middlebury campus, locally fabricated furnishings, nontoxic building materials, etc.) and state-of-the-art technology (tankless water heater, energy recovery ventilator, energy monitoring system, etc.)

Divided into distinctive public and private spaces, the pulsating heart of the steel-framed, cellulose-insulated InSite is its vented Mechanical Chimney, a modular unit which houses all of the dwelling’s active systems while also promoting passive cooling. “We chose the chimney form out of respect for prevalent Vermont vernacular, simultaneously highlighting our interpretation of the 21st century ‘energy hearth,' " explains the team.

And in an interesting twist, InSite’s solar system isn’t installed on the roof. Rather, the photovoltaic panels line the home’s southern exterior to form a walkway of sorts dubbed the Solar Path. The Middlebury SD team elaborates: "The path passes along the southern front of InSite to forge a pedestrian connection between the town of Middlebury and the college campus. Thus, the ‘Solar Path’ provides power for our home while encouraging walkability in the community. This unique approach to sustainable architecture immediately demonstrates the flexible potential of residential solar power to all passerby."

I'm really looking forward to seeing more of this one.

While Middlebury College faces the challenge of living up to — and exceeding — its past Decathlon successes, Norwich University sets an interesting precedent as the first, that I’m aware, military school to participate in the U.S. Solar Decathlon. And with the Delta T-90 House, an affordable two-bedroom family dwelling that provides consistent comfort of 70°F while it’s as low as -20°F outside, Norwich is looking to be a formidable contender.

As mentioned, affordability and accessibility is at the center of Norwich’s mission which responds to the question: “If we can build a house to prove design technologies worthy of the Solar Decathlon, why not build one focused on improving the lives of the people here in New England?”

The Norwich University ∆T90 team recognizes a housing crisis in New England. In 2010, approximately 47 percent of renters, and 38 percent of Vermont homeowners paid more than one-third of their income for housing. Close to a third of Vermont’s existing housing stock was built prior to 1950 with inadequate insulation, inefficient heating systems, and sub-standard window and door assemblies. Leaky construction combined with severe winter cold and high fuel costs force many Vermonters to pay annual energy costs that approach or equal their existing mortgage costs.

That being said, the high-performance 991-square-foot modular home was designed at a $195,000 base level and targets Vermont households earning 20 to 30 percent less than the state’s median income level.

The home itself was designed around the guiding principles of Science, Design, and Craft and inspired by the late, great Charles and Ray Eames Clad who believed in building “the best, for the most, for the least.” Clad in a locally harvested northern white cedar rain screen, the Delta T-90 House emphasizes conservation — conservation of energy gained through airtight construction, thick walls, a heat-recovery ventilation system, passive daylighting, and, perhaps most importantly, high levels of insulation — above all else. While not technically a passive house, the home does include several Passivhaus staples such as Intus triple-pane windows from Germany and a high-performance skylight from Fakro.

Unlike other SD homes, mechanical systems don’t take up a single inch of living space within the Delta T-90 House with all active heating and cooling originating from a Mitsubishi mini-split heat pump HVAC system. Explains the team: “The Delta T-90 house eliminates the footprint of mechanical systems and maximizes livable space. We are ensuring that the design will not be driven by mechanical systems, and we will utilize passive strategies to ventilate, day-light, and shade while regulating the air within the house.”

As for the home’s 6kW photovoltaic array, the panels are integrated into the home’s flat roof that was specifically designed to accommodate an annual average of 120 days of snow.

It’s also worth noting that while Delta T-90 prototype competes at the Solar Decathlon, the home will also become commercially available through East Montpelier-based prefab manufacturer Huntington Homes: “A modular home manufacturing company and its assembly line based methods help the Delta-T 90 House optimize material use, build quality, and long-term energy performance. This approach ensures an exceptional level of craft while maximizing construction efficiency.”

And this is interesting: Following the Solar Decathlon, the Delta T-90 House prototype will be relocated to suburban Ohio where it serve as a learning lab on the grounds of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westcott House (completed in 1908). Marta Wojcik, executive director of the Westcott House Foundation, tells the Rutland Herald: “We are truly excited about this partnership, as it gives us a unique opportunity to further expand our educational outreach and spark a dialogue about organic architecture, then and now. The Delta T90 house team developed a remarkable design that responded to authentic needs and challenges of our times. We cannot wait to utilize it for the betterment of our community.”

Plenty more information on all 20 teams duking it out for the title of the most attractive, livable, and efficient solar-powered home in all the land can be found at the 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon homepage (for the record, the big event kicks off on Oct. 3). And keep an eye out as I'll be publishing even more sneak peeks of this year's competiting homes over the coming weeks.

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