Jun 06, 2013
THEME: Learning

Harnessing the Energy of Design Collaboration

Two autumns ago, while most architecture students were settling in to their studio desks, a few hundred were at West Potomac Park as part of the fifth biennial Solar Decathlon – a contemporary World’s Fair for design, education, and sustainability.

At its essence, the Decathlon is about energy. It recognizes that 41% of all energy used in the US comes from buildings (22% is from residences) and that our current dependence on fossil fuels and rising carbon emissions is of critical concern. It also lends respect to the fact that in one second, the sun produces enough energy to meet the current needs of the entire earth for 500,000 years. It is this juxtaposition of incredible demand and untapped supply that fosters the ultimate goal of the competition: harnessing the enthusiasm of young students and translating these notions into a livable design.

Each of the twenty collegiate teams participating in the competition spent the previous eighteen months focused around a simple challenge presented by the Department of Energy: to design and build an attractive and affordable solar powered home. Simple on paper, more challenging to create in real life. The fact is that the greater portion of an architecture education is at the conceptual level and a majority of students have never constructed much of anything, let alone a transportable functioning house.

Bryan Bell, an advocate for socially responsible architecture and leader of multiple design/build studios once wrote: “The traditional design studio reinforces some unfortunate assumptions about creativity, most notably that practice is a solitary endeavor…In the real world, however, little happens without collaboration.”

Suffice it to say, learning curves were steep, but the team quickly stepped up to the challenge. 

Within the first few weeks on the project the typical “class” dynamic had been reestablished.  Studios that had previously been centered on grades, competitive design (yes, I said it), and pre-fixed syllabi transformed into ones driven by team goals that allowed for free-flowing exploration and collaborative experimentation. It didn’t matter who came up with the best idea – we were all there to support it and eventually establish a way to execute it.

Student-run night “classes” supported collaboration between the diverse schedules of team members from all disciplines.

Our design approach was not only a collaboration with each other, in a way we collaborated with past explorations. We began by analyzing everything that had been done in past competitions, from materials to spaces to systems, even construction techniques used to transport the houses across the country (and sometimes the globe!)** By the time of our participation, the DOE had hosted five Solar Decathlon competitions. In other words, 100 other teams had already started to explore the ways in which we can reimagine energy use in our homes. The question for us was how can we collectively expand our design thinking based on what others had already learned, growing from the success of past competitions?

The solution rested in the architecture itself: it had to be the educator, a mediator between the dweller and the systems of which it was a part.   

The team quickly recognized that energy use wasn’t the only resource being used irresponsibly in our homes. On average Americans use between 100-200 gallons of water per person / day, with approximately one quarter of the water that enters our homes being used to flush toilets, while millions of people globally live on less than 3 gallons a day and one in every nine  humans is without access to potable water.

Our location within the Chesapeake Bay area provided an auspicious place to witness the copious pollutant runoff entering the Bay’s watershed, with the ubiquitous gabled roof building type  sending water away from a site and back into municipal water systems.

We took the Bay and its complex ecosystem as inspiration for our design principles. We imagined a house where form and function were inextricably linked though its contextual landscape, one where the systems fed and supported each other in a cyclic and systemic web of integrated design. WaterShed – the University of Maryland’s entry – found form through harvesting the sun’s energy for power as well as filtering and repurposing water used and collected on-site.

WaterShed’s modular construction was designed to help disassemble the house during transportation to the competition site.

Of course, the Solar Decathlon is about more than just energy or water. Its success rests in something beyond the final deliverable – it is about a process. Embracing innovation from conceptual to execution to deliverable phases, the competition endorses collaboration and creative thinking by students unconstrained by professional knowledge and liberated by curiosity. One of the world’s most pressing challenges is entrusted not to a group of experienced professionals with extensive portfolios [although they have a lot to add too!]  but in willing students whose shared passion for experimental learning renders their level of cumulative innovation more successful than individual resumes. And the story of our success was in our team.

Each student participating in the program ultimately graduated with the experience of multiple majors: Engineers became designers, computer science majors installed green roofs. The competitive nature of the event and its emphasis on communication, outreach and teamwork inspires and exceeds the doctrinaire practice of education. The incredible dynamic of over 200 students coming together from nine schools across the University was something I doubt I will experience again.

WaterShed was one of the few houses that was hoping for both the sun and the rain during the competition week.

While we came from various fields of study with different hobbies and past experiences, we shared a common denominator – the desire to explore, learn, and share the role of good design with the public. This collaborative enterprise of students acting as educators is a catalyst for true design innovation.  

Of course it didn’t hurt to also take home first place. 🙂

The University of Maryland team poses for a victory photo outside the house shortly after being announced winners of the 2011 Solar Decathlon

For more information on WaterShed and the Solar Decathlon check out:


** Team China designed their home using recycled shipping containers that were sent over weeks before the competition began.

 This post was authored by Leah Davies.

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