2011 Solar Decathlon Highlights & Energy Efficient Home Improvements

Brooks Utley from HGTV

Recalling the Solar Decathlon—an event that challenged universities and their students to design, construct and demonstrate sustainable homes—the home that has stuck with me most is Caltech’s Compact Hyper-Insulated Prototype (CHIP) house.

How the CHIP House Showcased Energy Efficient Home Improvements

Specifically, I was struck by this home’s innovative use of insulation on the exterior: cellulose-filled batts fastened in layers to the outside surface of the roof and exterior walls. The insulation was encapsulated in a white, vinyl plastic coat, which gave the home a unique and visually appealing aesthetic.

This home exemplified what I was hoping I would find at the Solar Decathlon: young minds pushing the traditional ways we use materials, helping to shape future concepts in construction, and developing methods we can utilize in today’s designs and buildings.

How these Energy Efficient Home Improvements Worked

In setting out to build a more energy-efficient and cost-effective home, the Caltech team completely re-thought the traditional home-building process. This led to the home’s unique look, defined by the vinyl plastic exterior. In addition to being weather resistant and unique in appearance, this exterior worked to maintain temperature by reflecting light—an important characteristic in sunny Southern California, the students’ home.

The Caltech house, as well as many others, combined form, function and style. The teams were able to create extraordinary dwellings while keeping the overall costs reasonable. They did this by using commonly available materials—plastics, alternative insulation and reclaimed wood—but in innovative ways. In many instances, by using the same insulation found in most homes, such as spray polyurethane foam or polystyrene foam insulation board, the teams were able to achieve energy efficiency at rates many times that of most homes built today. Additionally, thoughtfully placed plastics in window frames, counters, and even the outside of the home, which helped to increase durability and energy efficiency, were a key factor in cutting costs while maintaining key elements of design.

Solar Panels: Another Example of Energy Efficient Home Improvements

And what would a recap of the Solar Decathlon be if I didn’t mention solar panels? The Solar Decathlon displayed how exquisite design and solar panels can fit together seamlessly. In fact, in many instances, solar panels blended so well into the general designs of the homes they were practically indistinguishable on their own. The Appalachian State home incorporated solar panels as shading for an outdoor area, and the Ohio State home encased its home’s exterior in plastic sheets that ran from the base of the home to the roof. This helped to maintain continuity in the home’s look, while also providing protection from sun or rain.

The lessons I learned at the Solar Decathlon are not in any way limited to the confines of the event itself. Rather, the innovations on display were wide-ranging and fundamental, and homebuilders, remodelers, and designers should challenge themselves to think as the students did – to take the various resources we have at hand and, starting from scratch, assemble them with energy efficiency, affordability, comfort and function as the main objectives.

I have no doubt that many of the designs and innovations featured during 2011’s Solar Decathlon will become mainstream in the not-so-distant future. I for one returned to my home in Southern California looking forward to applying the brilliant innovations I witnessed, both on my show, and in my own home.