Despite the presence of a fierce quartet of homegrown teams at this year's U.S. Solar Decathlon, German-speaking Europeans have, for the third time in the 11-year history of the event, emerged victorious.
During an awards ceremony held this weekend, Team Austria, a team composed of students from the Vienna Institute of Technology, was named the winner of the 2013 edition of the U.S. Solar Decathlon in Irvine, Calif. If you’re unfamiliar with the Decathlon, this biennial competition challenges a handful of collegiate teams (usually, but not always, 20) to design, build, and operate the most efficient, most attractive, and most cost-effective solar-powered prototype prefab home. Throughout the span of the 10-day event, each team participates in 10 different contests, both juried and measured, and open their homes up to the solar-curious public for tours.
Team Austria’s handsome-looking entry with a clunky acronym LISI ("Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation") took first place in the Communications contest (94 points) and second place in the Market Appeal contest (93 points). The Communications win was very much well deserved as the team’s website was stunning and their public outreach campaign both user-friendly and beautifully executed. As for the team’s group photo, it won my heart even before the Solar Decathlon kicked off. But can someone please explain the mystery beaver?
The plus-energy, patio-heavy LISI — "A Home For You Wherever You Are" — was designed to spotlight the carbon-capturing wonders of wood construction and features a wraparound privacy curtain (I'm not the biggest fan of that aspect), a living wall, and a compact yet flexible floor plan. In addition to scoring big in the Communications and Market Appeal contests, the home was awarded the full 100 points possible in the Hot Water and Energy Balance Contests. 
The team tied for third place with both the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the University of Nevada Las Vegas in the Engineering contest (93 points) and scored fourth behind the University of Southern California in the Architecture contest. Additionally, Team Austria scored fourth in the Entertainment contest in which each of the 19 competing teams, among other things, were required to host two dinner parties for judges and the “neighbors” (hey, beef rouladen and cream soup can be a pretty tough sell).
As for post-competition plans, after LISI is dissembled, packed up, and makes the long journey back to Vienna, it will be eventually shown at a prefab model home exhibition where the team hopes it will attract a potential buyer. Not the most inspired SD afterlife plan compared to some of the other teams (see: Team Capitol DC) but whatever works …
While Team Austria made an impressive showing with an overall score of 951.92 out of 1,000 total possible points, it wasn’t a complete runaway win as Team Las Vegas scored 947.52 for the absolutely stunning DesertSol (first place winner in the Market Appeal contest and second place winner in Communications). With less than five points between the two top-scoring teams, it’s the tightest finish in Decathlon history.
The third place winner and my personal favorite of the homes, Czech Technical University’s AIR House, trailed behind by just a smidge with 945.12 total points (first place in the Architecture contest and second in Engineering). The mega-brainy team from Stevens Technical University in Hoboken, N.J. scored fourth overall for the gorgeous, green-roofed EcoHabit (the one home that I was able to tour in person before the competition kicked off). Stanford, who ruled the scoreboard during the beginning days of the competition, came in fifth overall with Start.Home. The three other California schools aside from Stanford placed 10th (University of Southern California), 11th (Santa Clara University), and 14th (Southern California Institute of Architecture/California Institute of Technology).
Another personal favorite in addition to AIR House was InSite from repeat contender Middlebury College. The Middlebury team scored eighth overall including a trio of third place wins: the Affordability, Communications, and Home Entertainment contests. While not the most dazzling home from an architecture/design standpoint (the solar "walkway" was a nice deviation from the norm, however), what clicked with me was the team's holistic, community-driven mission. Sure, the whole "community as natural resource" idea is a touch granola — hey, it's Vermont — but I found it to be interesting, refreshing, and memorable as community is an aspect often overlooked by Decathlon teams.
And then there's UNC Charlotte’s 13th place-ranking UrbanEden. While the team didn’t do that hot overall (low scores in the Affordability, Communications, and Market Appeal contests proved to be major setbacks as the home performed not-too-shabbily otherwise), they did manage to snag the coveted People’s Choice Award. Visitors to the Solar Decathlon must have really gone gaga over UrbanEden and the team itself must have done something right as it’s no small feat for a Decathlon home to win the heart of the general public. Either that or the entire university logged on to vote for the team. So hats off to the UNC Charlotte team for a job well done.
Any visitors to this year’s Solar Decathlon have a personal favorite? Online voters: Who'd you give your People’s Choice Award vote to? Which home could you see yourself living in? And any thoughts on West Virginia University's PEAK or Team Texas' ADAPT (aka the Homes That Just Couldn't Seem To Catch a Break)?
And so concludes another U.S. Solar Decathlon. A huge congratulations to all of the teams that traveled from near and far to participate at the event’s new home, a decommissioned Marine Corps air station-turned-urban park south of Los Angeles in Orange County. It goes without saying that all 19 of this year's competing teams — and the Decathlon's 20th entrant, Team Tidewater Virginia, which withdrew from the competition last month due to funding issues — have been working extremely hard ... and not just over the past several weeks but for the past couple of years. Here’s hoping that they all make it back home safely so that they can relax hard.
And considering the decidedly tense atmosphere at the moment in the Decathlon’s longtime home of Washington D.C., I suppose the decision to relocate the event to the West Coast was a rather fortuitous one, eh?
Finally, although you'll have to wait full two years for another U.S. Solar Decathlon at a new — or the same? — location, the French city of Versailles is already gearing up to host the 2014 Solar Decathlon Europe (previously, the U.S. Solar Decathlon's Euro sibling was held in Madrid). The predictably eclectic lineup includes teams from Bombay, Berlin, Bucharest, Bangkok, Barcelona, and super-exotic Rhode Island. 

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

Wien wins it! Team Austria scores first at Solar Decathlon
Teams hailing from Central Europe dominate at the 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon in Orange County, Calif. with Team Austria taking the top spot.