Credit: Jim Tetro, U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

The biennial Solar Decathlon competition was too close to call for much of the contest period, which lasted from Oct. 8 through Oct. 15 (coinciding with public tours, which continue through Oct. 18). The leaderboard changed multiple times, with many of the teams within a few points of the top throughout the week. In the end, though, Team Germany’s surPLUS house lived up to its name, generating enough solar electricity to achieve the only perfect score in the Net Metering category and pushing the team ahead to secure its second win in a row. As anticipated, the fourth Solar Decathlon, which challenges 20 university teams to design, build, and operate a solar-powered home on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., showcased the endless possibilities of solar homes and jump-started the journey for the next generation of green designers. A lot of the houses pushed the boundaries of technology (including several never-seen-before solar collection systems) experimented with multi-functional space, and truly displayed the viability and practicality of sustainable living.

Each project was judged in five subjective categories—architecture, market viability, engineering, lighting design, and communications—and in five categories scored objectively through performance testing—comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and net metering.

Once again, Team Germany, made up of students from Technische Universität Darmstadt, had one of the most buzzed-about projects, thanks to a solar cladding that was as effective as it was striking. The exterior facades are outfitted in about 250 thin-film copper indium gallium diselenide panels, which supplement an 11.1-kW PV array on the roof. The modern look is complemented by a minimalist interior designed around a single-room living concept. (For more details on Team Germany, see coverage here.) 

The surPLUS house’s modern style was in stark contrast to the traditional appeal of second-place winner University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose Gable Home was inspired by Midwestern barns. The rural inspiration combines with an ultra-tight envelope and well-appointed technologies that provide optimal, advanced operational efficiencies that earned it high scores in the net metering, hot water, and comfort categories, among others. (Read more on Illinois here.)

Capturing third-place was Team California, whose Refract House boasts a “bent” layout that segments the living room, kitchen, and bedroom while giving each access to the central outdoor deck, a fresh design that earned the house first place in the architecture contest. Its energy-efficient construction and water-conserving features also earned high ranks in the engineering, home entertainment (in which teams to host two dinner parties and a movie night, illuminate work areas and keep lights on during specified times, operate electronics, and undergo a cooking performance test), and appliances categories. (Read more on California here.)

Rounding out the top 10 were Team Ontario/BC, University of Minnesota, Team Alberta, Cornell, Rice, Kentucky, and Ohio State. (Click here for a full list of scores by team and category.)

But no matter the placement, each team experienced an opportunity like no other—to put years of architecture and engineering training into practice while showing their communities and the world the possibilities of sustainably designed homes. “I probably learned more during this project than I did in three-and-a-half years of school,” said Marc Haberli, an architecture student with Team Alberta.

Judging by the enthusiasm of the students and the long lines of tourists snaking out the doors, both missions surpassed expectations.

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.