Yesterday I woke up bright and early (6 am!) and made the trek down to Washington D.C.’s West Potomac Park, the kind-of-new home to the Depart of Energy’s biennial collegiate solar home building showdown, the Solar Decathlon. Although the ribbon cutting ceremony was this morning and the solar village doesn’t open to the public until tomorrow, yesterday marked the first time the 19 participating teams opened the doors of their homes for media tours (and for other teams to check out).
Even though I’ve become quite familiar with many of the 2011 Solar Decathlon entrants over the past couple of months, it was quite the treat to get an up-close and (crowd-free) look at the homes and actually talk to the international roster of teams that have invested so much time and energy into their stunning solar-powered creations. The team members I spoke with were enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and fired-up for the big competition to commence (best answer of the day: I asked a member of Team New Zealand if he was homesick yet and he responded, “Well, we’ve been so busy we haven’t had the chance.”)
Starting this Saturday and lasting throughout the week, the teams will be competing in 10 different measured and juried contests (architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, appliances, hot water, comfort zone, home entertainment, energy balance, and, new this year, affordability) worth 100 points each that are designed to gauge how affordable, livable, and energy efficient each home is. The team that comes the closest to the magic number of 1,000 is named the big winner. Although I was on the lookout for potenial frontrunners in each of the official contests, I also had my eyes peeled for other standout, slightly irrelevant features like, umm, bedspreads and team outfits.
Below you’ll find a few very special, totally unofficial honors that I've bestowed to a handful of Solar Decathlon homes. Due to time constraints and the fact that a few of the homes weren’t quite ready to receive visitors (without hardhats, anyway), I didn’t get a chance to step inside of every single one but came pretty close.
And remember that if you’re in the D.C. area this coming week to stop on by the 2011 Solar Decathlon (it’s near the new Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial). Public exhibit hours and a schedule of consumer workshops can be found here.
Best of luck to all of the 2011 Solar Decathlon teams! 
Best bedspread: TRTL (Canada: University of Calgary)
Best team outfits: E-Cube (Belgium: Ghent University)
Best outbuilding to stash visiting mother-in-laws in: Solar Homestead (Appalachian State University)
Best (and only garage):  INhome (Purdue University)
Loveliest louvers: FleX House (Team Florida)
Most attractive bioremediation system: EnCORE (Ohio State University)
Best nightstand alternative: Re_Home (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

2011 Solar Decathlon: A superlative-filled sneak peek
Before the Department of Energy's 2011 Solar Decathlon officially gets underway in Washington, D.C., get a special look at some special standout features of the