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Today building efficiency is all the buzz, yet too often we are all talk. We are excited by the new technologies that are on the market today, and as students we apply these notions to our projects in theory or in a controlled environment. Not until you have a real design problem laid in front of you, however, do you begin to understand the many trials and triumphs of achieving a highly integrated, extremely efficient design while still maintaining some level of affordability. The Solar Decathlon Competition, sponsored by the Department of Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratories, provides one such opportunity for college students from around the globe.

Photo by Stefano Paltera/US Dept. of Energy Solar Decathlon

The competition was started by Richard King in 2002, and challenges 20 student teams to design, build, and exhibit an energy-efficient, solar-powered home. Since then it has been held every other year in Washington, D.C. demonstrating innovative clean energy solutions while developing a well-trained workforce dedicated to green technologies.

This competition showcases sustainable design and construction on the world’s stage, drawing students, homeowners, and industry professionals alike. Exhibits such as this are essential to helping people understand how we can live and build in a more environmentally conscious manner. It also stimulates new opportunities for continued research and development in various fields of study.

Photo by Nicole Cooksy

The key to being successful in the Solar Decathlon: collaboration. In a time when technology and design are becoming increasingly more integrated, we are too often confined within our own disciplines. Fielding an interdisciplinary team to design and build a solar-powered home has allowed the University of Tennessee’s team, Living Light, to have real conversations in an open, non-threatening environment from the start. The Living Light team has involved 7 departments on the UT Knoxville campus thus far, including Architecture, Engineering, Business, and Graphic Design, already touching over 200 students. It is a way of working that has influenced all of our team members greatly, and we hope we can bring it with us into the professional environment.

The 2011 competition will be held in late September – early October in the Washington, D.C. area.