With the Department of Energy's 2011 Solar Decathlon well underway in Washington, D.C.’s West Potomac Park, I thought now would be an ideal time to check in and see how each of the 19 competing collegiate teams are faring. Seven of the competition’s 10 contests have officially wrapped up and as of today, WaterShed, the University of Maryland’s sleek, H2O-recycling abode, is in the lead with 574 points. Ohio State’s enCORE isn’t too far behind with 571 points and in third place is Purdue's INhome with 563 points. Currently in fourth place is the competition's bizarre-looking head-turner, CHIP from the Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology.

Although super impressive, none of these particular homes were my personal favorites when I had the chance to attend a media preview and bestow some of the entrants with some very special, mostly irrelevant honors last week — topping my list were Victoria University of Wellington’s First Light, Middlebury College’s Self-Reliance, Appalachian State University's Solar Homestead, and Empowerhouse from Parsons/Milano/Stevens Institute of Technology. But with the Market Appeal, Communications, and Energy Balance contests still to come over the next couple of days (plus the People’s Choice Award which I suspect will go to First Light) there’s still room for a good, old-fashioned upset.

Below, you'll find quick breakdowns of each of the seven contests so far (check out out a detailed list of the current scores and standings here). And remember to vote for your favorite 2011 Solar Decathlon home as part of the People's Choice Awards. Voting ends Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. and the winner is announced on Oct. 2. Anyone care to divulge which team you voted for?

Best of luck to all the teams as the final stretch of the decathlon draws near and the competition really starts to heat up. And don't forget to check in early next week when I'll announce this year's big winner. Until then, keep up to speed on the latest breaking news over at the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon website. Also, Inhabitat seems to have broken out their secret stash of exclamation points and is covering the heck out of this year's decathlon so that's a reliable source of SD-related news as well.

Empowerhouse (Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Affordability (juried)

  1. Empowerhouse – Parsons/Milano/Stevens = 100 points
  2. INhome - Purdue University = 100 points
  3. E-Cube – Team Belgium = 99.89 points
  4. CHIP – Southern California Institute of Architecture/California Institute of Technology = 98.75 points

Affordability is a new contest after Team Germany rolled out the big bucks — around $2 million — and swept the 2009 Solar Decathlon. This year, a full 100 points were awarded to teams that built their homes for $250,000 or less while a sliding scale was applied to homes with estimated construction costs ranging from $250,001 to $600,000. Any teams with construction costs over $600,000 received zero points. While all of the teams managed to keep their homes under $600,000, only Empowerhouse and INhome, were built for under $250,000. This was a nice win for Empowerhouse, a home built to Passive House standards and the first entrant in Solar Decathlon history that will go on to become a Habitat for Humanity home. INHome, with its prominent garage and cookie-cutter appeal, is certainly the most “normal” looking home in the competition. The most spendy Solar Decathlon home? The University of Tennessee’s Living Light at $470,574.

Laundry time at Living Light (Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Appliances (measured)

  1. Re_Home – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign = 66.93 points
  2. WaterShed – University of Maryland = 66.82 points
  3. TRTL – University of Calgary = 66.60 points
  4. Living Light - University of Tennessee = 66.57 points

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Re_Home, a comfortable dwelling meant for rapid deployment in the wake of Midwestern natural disasters like tornados, took first place (just by a hair) in the Appliances Contest where teams earn points for mundane household tasks like running the dishwasher, washing and drying laundry, and refrigerating and freezing food.

Inside WaterShed (Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Architecture (juried)

  1. WaterShed – University of Maryland = 96 points
  2. First Light – New Zealand = 95 points
  3. Solar Homestead – Appalachian State = 94 points
  4. Self-Reliance – Middlebury College = 93 points

One of the Solar Decathlon’s most coveted wins, the Architecture contest, is judged by a panel of professional architects that take into account each competing home’s architectural elements, holistic design, lighting, inspiration, and documentation. Essentially, this is the “most attractive” contest. The four homes that I found myself fantasizing about living in myself WaterShed, First Light, Solar Homestead, and Self-Reliance — took top honors here. Coming in last was the University of Calgary’s teepee-inspired Technological Residence, Traditional Living (TRTL).

Inside enCORE (Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Comfort Zone (measured)

  1. enCORE - Ohio State = 84.77 points
  2. INHome - Purdue University = 84.73 points
  3. WaterShed - University of Maryland = 82.28 points
  4. Unit 6 Unplugged – Tidewater Virginia = 79.34 points

Comfort Zone, Jerri Blank’s favorite clothing store, is the contest where teams score points for designing their homes to “to keep temperature and humidity steady, uniform, and comfortable.” For full points, the homes must keep their temperatures between 71°F and 76°F and relatively humidity below 60 percent. Not the easiest feat during an ungodly muggy and wet week in Washington, D.C.

An intimate dinner at Solar Homestead (Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Home Entertainment (measured and juried)

  1. Self-Reliance - Middlebury College = 80.27 points
  2. CHIP – Southern California Institute of Architecture/California Institute of Technology = 80.21 points
  3. Solar Homestead - Appalachian State = 79.94 points
  4. TRTL - University of Calgary = 79.27 points

It makes sense that Middlebury College’s Self-Reliance, a stunning abode designed specifically for New England’s harsh winters, took top honors in the Home Entertainment contest. Because, after all, what are you going to do when you’re snowed in for days on end in the middle of Vermont? The contest itself, which involved hosting dinner parties and movie nights for neighboring teams, “gauges whether a house has what it takes to be a home. How well does it accommodate the pleasures of living, such as sharing meals with friends and family, watching movies in a home theater, and surfing the Web?"

The Team Kiwki kids celebrate a win (Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Engineering (juried)

  1. First Light – New Zealand = 93 points
  2. CHIP – Southern California Institute of Architecture/California Institute of Technology = 91 points
  3. Living Light – University of Tennessee = 90 points
  4. WaterShed – University of Maryland = 89 points

For this technical contest, a jury of professional engineers evaluates each home for functionality, efficiency, innovation, reliability, and documentation. Great to see First Light, a residence modeled after the traditional "Kiwi bach" (New Zealand speak for summer home) come in first here. Coming in last was Tidewater Virginia’s lavishly decorated (seriously, the living room looked like a Pottery Barn catalog shoot) Unit 6 Unplugged.

Hot water measurements (Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Hot Water (measured)

  1. First Light - New Zealand = 75 points
  2. Living Light - University of Tennessee = 75 points
  3. Empowerhouse – Parsons/Milano/Stevens = 75 points
  4. Solar Homestead – Appalachian State = 75 points

The name of this contest says it all. To score points, each team must deliver 15 gallons of hot water (110°F) in 10 minutes or less in several daily “hot water draws.” A total of seven teams, not just the four listed above, tied for first place with 75 points. I'm not sure what happened but Team Florida's FleX House (which isn't doing so hot, overall) scored a zero here.

UPDATE 9/30: A light shake-up due to a minor error in spreadsheet scoring calculations has bumped E-Cube from third place into first place (tied with Empowerhouse) in the Affordability contest while INhome is downgraded to second place. Read the entire announcement here.

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

2011 Solar Decathlon: University of Maryland's WaterShed takes the lead
Drama! Suspense! Desiccant waterfalls! As the final stretch of the 2011 Solar Decathlon draws near, the University of Maryland remains in first place with Ohio