Given that I don’t have much of a mind for engineering or building science, one of the more intriguing components of the biennial U.S. Solar Decathlon for me is market strategy — who specifically has each competing team designed their solar-powered home for? How is the home’s design philosophy reflective of its target market? How does it meet the unique needs and wants of its intended client?

As one of the 10 measured and juried contests that make up the Solar Decathlon, Market Appeal is a crucial one with each team taking a truly different route as to what kind of real-world client their home is designed and built for. With some teams, the target market is more on the generalist side (growing families, young urban professionals, downsizing empty nesters) while other teams can get super specific (victims of natural disasters, Habitat for Humanity families, remote industries workers living in Western Canada, etc.)

That being said, when the 2013 Solar Decathlon kicks off in a few short weeks at Great Orange County Park in Irvine, Calif., a decent amount of competing homes will be geared specifically toward baby boomers (translation: retired or soon-to-retire folks and those who can get away with ordering off the senior menu at Denny’s without having to flash a driver's license). This is actually pretty sweet as the students who have spent the last two-plus years designing these homes obviously have had more than solar orientation and rainwater catchment systems on their brains.

They’ve been thinking of their parents. Or their grandparents.

Below is a look at the quartet of entrants competing in the 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon marketed toward blue hairs, snowbirds, golden girls, and the 2 pm naptime set.

But of course a first-time contender comprising students hailing from both Arizona State University and the University of New Mexico have designed a rather lovely desert dwelling for active seniors. It would be weird if they didn’t. Team ASUNM’s saguaro cactus-inspired SHADE (Solar Home Adapting for Desert Equilibrium) is designed to thrive in and interact with the Phoenix Sonoran Desert environment. And from the looks of the above rendering, the team knows its target market quite well.

Measuring 800 square feet with one hell of a lanai, SHADE celebrates indoor-outdoor living and, thanks to its adaptable modular design, transformative built-in furniture, and versatile floor plan, can change as its inhabitants see fit whether it means a visit from the grandkids, the addition of a caretaker, or hosting Bunco night. It’s a comfortable, contemporary and totally cool home (love the bougainvillea-covered rain screens, clay-coated interior walls, and innovative thermal storage system which is rarely seen in private homes) in which to sit back, relax and take in a stunning southwestern sunset.

As one of two competing teams hailing from the other side of the Atlantic (the other being Team Austria), Czech Technical University’s AIR (Affordable, Innovative, Recyclable) House is an interesting one. Uncomplicated, adaptable, and petite in size (it’s intentionally the smallest of all entrants in 2013 Solar Decathlon as the “cleanest energy is the one unconsumed”), AIR House is a dwelling meant to start out as a weekend getaway in the country for empty nesters and eventually shift into a full-time residence for active seniors who are “interested in sustainability and connecting with nature.”

Explains the home’s official SD profile page:

Because senior housing presents an imminent social topic in the Czech Republic, the AIR House is designed to foster health and social community among active retirees. To accommodate this target group, the AIR House emphasizes accessibility in the arrangement of space, along with health‐enhancing, easy-to-use features. Comfort, independence, and social engagement are fostered by a unique integration of indoor and outdoor spaces.

Among the many standout features of AIR House are a graywater system, electric bike charging station, edible garden, spacious canopy-covered terrace for outdoor lounging and entertaining, and a chalkboard paint facade for leaving notes, reminders for doctor appointments, and practicing all-important memory exercises.

For the 2013 Solar Decathlon, third-time contender Santa Clara University (third place at the 2007 and 2009 Decathlons) is back with an all-undergraduate team and a fresh take on senior living that emphasizes efficiency, economics and elegance. It would also appear that the net-zero energy Radiant House is all about a fourth E, entertaining:

We consider the great room to be the heart of our home, and have made a concerted effort to ensure that this already adaptable and accommodating area is well suited to the needs of our target audience, a retired couple. The great room utilizes free standing furniture to allow homeowners to repurpose the space to fit any occasion; if they are having a dinner party, the couple could extend the dining room table into the beautiful and open central module. Contemporary, linear LED lighting and natural earth walls will contribute to a festive evening as guests enjoy time in the company of friends and family.

Bamboo rules throughout the 980-square-foot home and is used in the structural wall and joist systems, cabinetry, decking, flooring and even the bath towels and bedding. And even the most tech-challenged baby boomers should be able to take full advantage of Radiant House’s nifty automation system in which the home’s operable clerestory windows, lights, sliding patio doors and the HVAC system (radiant cooling and heating, naturally, embedded in the ceiling drywall) can be tweaked and adjusted via smartphone or tablet.

Last but not least, since getting along with the neighbors is important for homeowners of a certain age, instead of a bulky and unsightly rooftop solar array, Radiant House sports a Sunplanter roof integrated solar racking system in which the photovoltaic panels blend into the roofline.

Inspired by Hampton University’s storied Emancipation Oak — the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation — Canopy House from Team Tidewater Virginia (Hampton University and Old Dominion University) addresses themes of independence, protection and safety by incorporating various universal design principles that allow its residents to transition into old age in a sustainable and self-sufficient manner.

Explains the Canopy House homepage:

By 2030, 20% of Americans will be age 65 or older. Most homes aren't designed to accommodate for the changes that come with age, but the Canopy House is universally designed to make this transition comfortable and allow for Aging-in-Place. Aging-in-Place is ‘the ability to live in one's own home and community safely, independently, and comfortably, regardless of age, income, or ability level,’ according to the Centers for Disease Control. The Canopy House is an ideal home for an elderly couple or individual interested in downsizing or retiring sustainably.

Universal design aspects of Canopy House include acoustic paneling in the common areas, grab bars and adjustable showerheads in the bathroom, a wheelchair-friendly layout, and an interior design scheme that incorporates high-contrast colors and textures for residents with visibility impairments.

Centered around passive design strategies, Canopy House is also an extremely efficient home with features including a dual-tank integrated solar thermal system (ISTS), mini-split HVAC system, energy recovery ventilator, and a tablet-based energy management system dubbed HUEE in which the homeowner can learn “how their house is gaining or losing energy during the day and how much energy is being accumulated during the month.”

Fantastic stuff all around that will ideally spark a dialog on the topic of sustainable housing for aging populations amongst attendees of this year's Solar Decathlon.

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 home page (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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