Creature Comforts -- Hold the Carbon

For all of the articles, feature slideshows and video reports from the 2011 Solar Decathlon, few focused on the most important real-world determinants in buying a home: comfort and home entertainment. Even though the Decathlon featured categories for comfort and entertainment, few journalists appreciated the difficulty of building a comfortable residence without fossil fuels.

Face it. No one is going to buy a $300,000 sustainable home if it looks like a Russian gulag. Energy efficient homes are only viable if the average single family feels the building meets their needs: space for televisions and family time, room to be alone, a kitchen larger than a bread box.

Solar Decathlon judges took the topic seriously, assigning points for ease of Internet connectivity at peak hours, the ability to host a movie night with the “neighbors,” and whether the prospective family could sit down to a comfortable, home-cooked dinner together. The welterweight contenders stepped up and dominated with a wide variety of environmentally friendly entertainment options.

Middlebury College won a close race to add comfort to sustainability, with upstart Appalachian State coming close but tying the University of Maryland. Middlebury took the top spot by cleverly dividing up public and private space within the home. The front-facing public area features a greenhouse, entertainment center and dining area, while the private quarters allow the owners a bit of modesty when the party’s over. Appalachian State also took to the idea of dividing up rooms, clustering entertainment and dining into a sunny front den.

The Solar Decathlon grades comfort narrowly, looking only at how consistently the homes manage heat and humidity. The “sweet spot,” a temperature between 71 and 76 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of about 60%, proved harder than expected. Poor Team New York received only 56 out of a possible 100 points for a home with enough temperature fluctuation to drive any dad to adjust the thermostat. Ohio State kept the dial steady with a near-perfect 98.6 points, with Indiana’s Purdue University right behind at 98.

The Solar Decathlon’s participants took great pains to emulate all of the pleasures we take for granted in our current generation of energy-wasting houses. That these innovations were powered from sustainable sources and still felt at home in a traditional neighborhood makes them even more impressive.

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