Solar Decathlon Heads West

I did a double take when I picked up my local newspaper last Saturday and saw a headline and thumbnail image proclaiming the Solar Decathlon was going to have a change of venue, from the nation’s capital to “the OC.” “Not that Solar Decathlon,” I thought, but there, in the picture, was a glimpse of the Sci-Arc/Cal Tech house from last year’s event, standing out because of its overstuffed and tufted exterior that really gives it the flavor of a hip piece of lounge furniture. So I read on to find that former Irvine Mayor Beth Krom, who is now chair of the Great Park Board, evidently lobbied the organizers to move the event to southern California, after it was initially suggested by Professor Fred Smoller of Brandman University. This, when you think about it, makes all the sense in the world.

Twice I have attended the Solar Decathlon in Washington, D.C. Both times it rained. A lot. On the first visit, it poured and the temperature was in the 40s—making waiting in line to tour the houses especially brutal. At least at last fall’s event, it was warm outside so the rain was more of a nuisance than what felt like a possibly health-threatening event. Despite the interlocking vinyl “walk pads” that had been laid on the ground to absorb the impact of the masses, the grounds turned into a mud pie. For 2011, the event had already been moved off the national mall due to the great damage it inflicted. Instead it was held in Potomac Park, a more accommodating, if considerably less stimulating setting. (Also much harder to reach by public transportation—a shuttle carried visitors from the park to the closest Metro stop.)

So now the showcase is coming to my own backyard, and I couldn’t be more excited about it. The progressive nature of the decathlon seems a better fit for the left coast. Tim Shaw, the manager of external affairs for the Great Park, notes not only that California has an enormous amount of available sun, but is also home for many other innovators. (I like the idea that both Fiskar and Tesla are headquartered here. Maybe they’ll provide NEVs for folks to tool around the display grounds.)

It would also appear that California schools will have better representation in 2013 (the event is held only in odd-numbered years). In addition to Sci-Arc and Cal Tech, USC will participate. The potential for a friendly cross-town rivalry emerging in the California delegation is something to eagerly anticipate.

In my experience, there are always a couple of take-aways from the decathlon that get under my skin and begin to influence my work, even in the multifamily sector. Three years ago it was moveable partitions and built-ins that really provided a sense of “user configurability” in the dwellings. From last year, the “whole-house power kill switch” located by the back door of the Sci-Arc/Cal Tech home stuck with me (as well as that marshmallow-y exterior, which was really cool, if not for everyone), and I’m already seeing the idea show up in some supportive housing projects, so it’s only a matter of time before it appears in market rate apartments.

So mark your calendars for fall 2013! And need I make a shameless plug for Orange County, California tourism? While you’re here to check out the techy-est tract on earth at the Solar Decathlon, you can schedule a side trip to the Magic Kingdom or Surf City, USA. If you’re looking for a local guide or host, drop me a line.