For years the prophets of the heralded ecology age have been drawing our attention to the potential of south European countries in terms of solar energy. Thus it was probably high time that a team from a country bordering the Mediterranean won a Solar Decathlon Europe event for the first time, as happened this year. And never before had it been such a close finish, not since 2002, when the very first Solar Decathlon took place under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. In the end no less than three points – from a total of 840 – stood between the winning team from the Università degli Studi Roma Tre and the squad from Delft University of Technology at third place.
For those who have never visited a Solar Decathlon before, the event can probably best be described as a mixture of student workcamp, architecture exhibition and open-air building and construction fair. The unique atmosphere and the opportunity to showcase the prowess of one’s university to the world public still motivates countless students and professors to devote two years of their lives to participation in the event. From applying to take part and developing a concept through drawing up the detail design to looking for sponsors and organising transportation, this is how long the preparatory phase takes until the dawning of the two-week on-site competition phase.
Be that as it may, and despite all enthusiasm and the opportunity for public exposure, there has been much pondering in recent times about the meaning of the Solar Decathlon. As is asked, what exactly is so future-oriented about planning and building a detached home for two even if it meets all its energy needs with solar power? Thus it is to the credit of the organisers in Versailles that they modified the competition rules originally formulated in 2002. This time the search was not for single-family residences that generate a maximum of solar power under the climatic conditions of the competition venue, but answers to burning urban development, social and ecological problems in the countries that the university teams hailed from. Moreover the students were to take global, future-oriented sustainable construction issues into consideration, such as urbanisation and settlement consolidation, the interlocking of architecture and mobility, affordable construction and sparing use of resources and energy.
From industrial loft to row house upgrading
The design teams responded to the challenge with a wealth of ideas, whereby the fact that the Solar Decathlon involves ten categories almost became an afterthought – at the presentation of their buildings, few of the teams put emphasis on technology but on architecture and urban development concepts. The houses also called for bit of imagination on the part of the beholder: presented in single-family house format for space, cost and time reasons, the buildings mainly consisted of prototypes standing for a more far-reaching concept.
The winning project from Rome consists of a wooden apartment for the top floor of a multi-family housing project, and if an investor can be found could one day be realised on the periphery of the Italian capital. The runners-up from Nantes, France, presented a concept for breathing new life into a late-19th-century industrial building in the French city’s port area with a mix of housing and greenhouse. Delft University of Technology even reconstructed the row house of the grandparents of one of the team members to demonstrate their concept of how buildings could be made more energy-efficient with solar energy. And no less than five teams, including the Berlin one at fourth place, presented attic conversions or roof remodelling solutions for existing buildings.
There was no lack of interesting ideas even in the houses that did not make it to the top places in the competition: the students from Chile and Japan examined concepts for housing reconstruction after storm surges and earthquakes, and their colleagues from Mexico City designed a low-budget modular system that takes the particular climate and chronic water shortages of the Mexican capital into consideration for shanty town inhabitants. Affordability was also the main focus of the south European teams: the students from Sant Cugat near Barcelona – winners in the “Architecture” category – presented a very simple building basically consisting of a structural framework system and a polycarbonate skin. After the competition is over, the building is to be placed at the disposal of a community in the Catalonian hinterland, whereupon the residents can then decide on how it is to be used – the structure is so flexible in design it could act as a community centre, supermarket or workshop building.
Regionalism meets high-tech
If Kenneth Frampton had not coined the term “critical regionalism” back in the 80s, someone else would have to do so today to describe the design attitude of the student teams participating in the Solar Decathlon. But only in a very few cases were the projects concerned with a direct reinterpretation of traditional architectural forms. Rather, the regionalism on view reflected a precise analysis of the challenges that cities and rural regions face today in differing parts of the world. And these challenges are completely different to those of 100 or 200 years ago. In this the projects in Versailles breathed new life into the well-worn slogan “think globally, act locally”.
The result was a veritable world’s fair of young architecture in which rivalry about energy budgets, indeed about the comparability of the houses, faded into the background – and this is to be seen in a very positive light. Yet the organisers ought to put more thought to the public exposure of their event; Versailles may be redolent in history but anyone seeking to kindle mass enthusiasm for green building at the next competition would be well advised to seek a venue with more public appeal, one in a downtown location as in Washington and Madrid in the past.
Retrieved Tuesday, 05 August 2014