This Saturday, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to tour the final weekend of the Department of Energy-sponsored 2009 Solar Decathlon, a green building competition on the National Mall where 20 domestic and international collegiate teams duked it out in 10 contests to see who could design and build the most attractive, livable, and energy-efficient solar-powered home. (Check out my preview posts of the Solar Decathlon here and here and MNN’s photo slideshow here.)

Mud, rain, cold, wind, more mud, and a Canadian Mountie marked my afternoon on the Mall. Even my trusty rubber Tretorn boots didn't hold up that well. I figured that the horrid weather would keep lines down, but that wasn’t the case at all ... umbrella-wielding folks of all stripes came out in droves to view the 20 competing homes. Lines were especially long to tour Team Germany’s surPLUShome (pictured below) the first place winner for the second Solar Decathlon in a row (the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Gable Home and Team California’s Refract House took second and third place while BeauSoleil from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette nabbed the People’s Choice award).

What impressed me most about the Solar Decathlon aside from the homes themselves was the diverse group of people who braved the weather and showed up to tour the homes. To be honest, I was expecting mostly hardcore green building enthusiasts to be in attendance, and while they were indeed there, there were also tons of folks who knew little or nothing about solar power and green building but wanted to learn more.

I toured one home with an elderly woman who was at the decathlon for her third visit and was taking notes on pad with detailed savagery, asking question after question, and muttering repeatedly, “if only they had this stuff when I built my home 35 years ago.” At another home, I saw a visitor point straight at a solar panel and ask a team member, “What is this and what does it do?”

Although a hearty congratulations goes to Team Germany for taking top honors, there were many recognition-deserving things that stuck out to me at homes that didn’t place in the top three. Let’s take a look shall we?

Best Greeter: Team Alberta, SolAbode

Each home came equipped with a fantastic crew of enthusiastic and helpful greeters, most of them student team members. Team Alberta, however, won my heart by employing an actual Canadian Mountie in full regalia to man the front door. I'm not sure if he was doing double duty and also making an appearance at the Team Ontario/BC house or if he was a Team Alberta exclusive. Overall standing: 6th place.

Best Lawn Ornament: Team Spain, B&W House
Kudos to the good-looking members of Team Spain for doing a bang-up job of fielding complex questions in flawless Inglés. However, Team Spain gets the distinction for having the best lawn ornament, a giant statue of a man embracing a giant orb. Not surprisingly, said orb glows at night. The decor inside the B&W House was no less showstopping, looking like it came straight from the set of a Pedro Almodóvar film. Overall standing: 14th place.
Best Rainwater Recycling System: Team Boston, Curio House
I was blown away by Team Boston's gorgeous cooper rainwater capturing sculpture that's connected directly to the rooftop rainwater drainage system. As you can see, it drains directly into garden beds and a fish pond. Overall standing: 15th place.
Best Solar-Powered Popcorn Popper: The University of Arizona, SEED [pod]
Only one home featured a solar-powered popcorn popper. That would have been the University of Arizona's SEED [pod] house. I wasn't sure what in the world the sculptural object made from a kettle, funnel, and three Mylar discs on the home's back porch was at first. Helps to ask! Overall standing: 18th place.
The most notable exterior aspect of the University of Kentucky's blue house was a continuous clerestory window used for "daylight harvesting." Beautiful, practical and squeaky clean, the house window is a boon for voyeurs but can also be shut for privacy. Overall standing: 9th place.
House That Looked Most Like a House: University of Minnesota, the ICON House
For the most part, I was extremely impressed by the looks of all 20 houses in the competition. But one house, ICON House from the University of Minnesota, caught my attention right away and didn't let go. Its beautiful and thoughtful design was the closest thing resembling a "normal" house that I saw on the Mall. However, the home's various impressive eco bells and whistles — it came in first in the Lighting Design and Engineering contests — made the ICON House anything but "normal." Overall standing: 5th place.
House Prone to the Most Finger Pointing and Neck Craning: Cornell University, Silo House
If there was one home on the Mall that had an ohhh- and ahhh-worthy exterior it was Cornell's Silo House, a structure composed of three interconnecting cylindrical rooms housing a living area, bedroom and bathroom. The shape of the home pays tribute to the silos doting the hilly landscape of upstate New York. I didn't get to take a peep inside (the lines for this beauty were quite long) but the home's unlikely exterior was certainly a decathlon highlight. Overall standing: 7th place.
Did you attend the 2009 Solar Decathlon? If so, what was your favorite home?

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

Battle of the greenest
Even though Team Germany took the top spot at the 2009 Solar Decathlon, I visited the competition to bestow honors on some of the other entrants.