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The modular wood-frame construction and textile membranes secured victory at the university competition, 2013 Solar Decathlon: Team Austria from the TU Vienna wins first place with its LISI courtyard house.
© U.S. Department of Energy, Solar Decathlon 2013
Solar Decathlon 2013 in California

Small single-family home, placed in American no man's land: building model from the winning Austrian team.
© Team Austria, TU Wien

Team Austria: The central living area opens up into the courtyard.
© U.S. Department of Energy, Solar Decathlon 2013

A bit like on a lunar base: Participants build their building prototypes on the runway of a former military base in Irvine, California.
© U.S. Department of Energy, Solar Decathlon 2013

Energy-plus prototypes in competition

The "Solar Decathlon 2013", an international university competition held in Irvine, California, ended last Sunday. The competition took place for the sixth time. This time, both European teams were very successful. The Austrian team from the Vienna University of Technology was the winner out of the 19 universities that took part. The Austrians won the most points in ten disciplines for their LISI building prototype. Third prize went to the team from the Czech Technical University in Prague.

This was the first time the "Orange County Great Park" in Irvine, California, had played host to the international university competition. A park will be built on the grounds of the former military base and developed into a leisure and recreation area. 19 building prototypes were constructed on the airfield's now defunct runway and tested for two weeks in sunny Californian weather.
The aim of the international competition was to design an energy-efficient and innovative house that generates more energy via solar active surfaces than it actually needs. To achieve this, the university teams had to plan the construction of small buildings and build them as prototypes within two weeks during the competition. In a further two weeks of the competition, the buildings were then measured in detail whilst in operation and assessed by a jury in ten disciplines: architecture, engineering, comfort zone, use of electrical appliances, market appeal, hot water, energy balance (solar generation versus consumption), affordability, communication and home entertainment.

Modular, scalable and flexible

The Austrian team from the Vienna University of Technology was awarded the most points for its LISI courtyard house. LISI stands for "Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation".  The flexibly scalable house has a modular lightweight construction made of wood. Two horizontal bracing cores were positioned on four base modules which incorporate all the building services equipment. This and the photovoltaic system on top make up the roof. The energy-plus building generates all the required energy here. The hot and cold water for heating and cooling is supplied by two air-water heat pumps. Healthy air conditions are provided by a ventilation unit which acts as a heat-and-moisture exchanger between warm, stagnant, and fresh air. The entire building is heated, cooled and supplied with fresh air by means of water, air and active cubic capacity via a functional floor.

The textile exterior can be adapted to the needs of the inhabitants: it protects against overheating in summer and in winter it generates sufficient solar heat. Transparency and privacy can be varied. The building concept incorporates elements of two German competition entries at the European offshoot of the competition in Madrid. At the Solar Decathlon Europe 2012, the team from Constance persisted in its cube-shaped, modular, wood-frame construction. In the same competition, the team from Aachen took advantage of a textile facade that acts as a thermal and visual membrane between the open living space and its surroundings.

The building by the third-placed team from Prague was designed according to the "house-in-house" principle. The roof and exterior facade consist largely of wood and create an intermediate climate zone. The artificial lighting is remarkable and is adjusted to optimally conform with the amount of daylight.

Extra-terrestrial houses on the runway

This was the first time that the event had not taken place in Washington on the National Mall. "The atmosphere on the former army runway was somewhat barren. There are no regular buildings for miles around," said Peter Russell, Professor for Computer Aided Architectural Design at RWTH Aachen University, who observed the final stage of the competition. "The competition site presented an almost alien impression which was not necessarily the aim of the competition," added Russell.

The competition aims to give a fresh impetus to university education and the construction industry. But for some time, the concepts and systems on display have been rather similar and there has been a trend towards electricity-only buildings. And: most of the buildings displayed in Irvine could hardly be called role models of sustainable urban design. The competition continued to focus on the no longer contemporary single-family-home format.
However, the event is still a great opportunity for participating students and universities. Russell praised the team spirit and quality of the buildings on display, which was, as usual, extremely high this year and he made special mention of the consistently high commitment of the participants.



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Further publications

BINE-Projektinfo „In competition for the best energy-plus building” (17/2012)

BINE-Projektinfo „Buildings of the future successful in decathlon” (04/2011)

BINE-Projektinfo „International competition for solar living” (04/2010)