For architecture and engineering students, the Solar Decathlon is like the Super Bowl of college-design projects. Every two years since 2002, teams from dozens of institutions from around the world have brought their small, superefficient houses to the big lawn on the National Mall. There, policy makers, Beltway journalists, and tourist families from the hinterlands could come and imagine a different future for the American dream home.
But not so this year, it seems. The U.S. Department of Energy, in consultation with the National Park Service, has decided to move the Solar Decathlon off the mall to an unspecified location because of concerns about the impact on the mall lawn and grounds—a decision that has riled students and faculty members who have been involved in the contest.
They say that the National Mall provides a prominent public stage at a time when pundits and politicians—not least among them, Barack Obama—talk about a crucial need for clean energy and renewed American ingenuity.
“It’s a regrettable decision and a heartbreaking decision,” says Daniel S. Friedman, dean of the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington and president of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.
“It is a unique space, and uniquely public,” he continues. “It’s where we come together as strangers, both commercial and public, for an exchange—and that is what is going on here: an exchange of ideas in a public place, at the steps of the Capitol. Take that away, and you erode the significance of the program.”
A coalition to protest the decision is forming. In a statement regarding the move, the American Institute of Architects said the move would “damage the project’s effectiveness as an educational event for young architects and a vast array of design professionals.” A petition is circulating online, with support from solar-advocacy groups. And student architects have also appeared in a YouTube video appealing to Mr. Obama directly: “Mr. President, we have responded to your call to action,” says one student in the video. “Please put the Solar Decathlon back on the National Mall.” (See that video at the bottom of this page.)
They have been joined by Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, and Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, all Democrats, and nine other senators, who signed a letter to Steven Chu, the secretary of energy, and Ken Salazar, the secretary of the interior, urging them to reconsider.
“In his State of the Union Address, President Obama called upon our nation to reach lofty clean energy goals,” the letter said. “To move the Solar Decathlon away from the mall would be sending a mixed signal to the very students who are doing their part to make this lofty goal a reality. ”
The letter also said that the mall is a “focal point” that has hosted Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington, the display of the AIDS quilt, and Mr. Obama’s inauguration. “There is no doubt that events like these caused physical damage to the mall, but their historic, cultural, and political value far outweighed the physical toll they took on the grounds,” the senators wrote. “The same holds true for the Solar Decathlon.”
At press time, the Department of Energy had not responded to questions about the move. A news release from last month said that the decision to pick a new site supported the “historic effort underway to protect, improve, and restore the National Mall,” which had been damaged by large public events. “We recognize the challenges this change may present teams and sponsors, and we appreciate their understanding as we select a new location.” (One rumored new location is the National Harbor, in nearby Maryland.)
But the decision does not just affect the public profile of the contest. Students and faculty members say that the move could complicate the projects financially and technically as well.
A Solar Decathlon house is no small undertaking. College teams can spend $500,000 or more on the project—not just to build the house, but also to transport it in pieces to the display site and to provide lodging for the students who will construct and deconstruct the house, and provide public tours while it’s standing.
The display on the National Mall was a big attraction for corporate and other donors, says Rebecca J. Hagen, an instructor in the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida and a faculty adviser to a team that comprises students from South Florida, Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, and the University of Florida.
“People know where the mall is,” she says. “So when we are talking to potential donors, that is off the table as a selling point—and we don’t know if we have an equally big selling point” in another location. Team Florida has landed five-figure donations from energy companies like Florida Power & Light, Progress Energy, TECO Energy, and the Orlando Utilities Commission.
The solar houses for the 2011 competition have been under way for almost two years now—and the location of windows, solar panels, and other features in the designs have been optimized for the specific site on the National Mall.
“It is about studying the coordinates of that location and designing orientations and your solar array to fit that particular area to generate a certain amount of power,” says Melanie L. Hendel, an architecture student at Parsons the New School of Design. She said teams have also designed their houses around specific transportation modes and routes to Washington.
Some people are trying to consider upsides to the possibility of a move. Ms. Hagen, for example, says that Florida gets better sun than Washington anyway. She wonders what might happen if the contest were held near Orlando, where it could attract visitors to Disney World.
Mr. Friedman, meanwhile, is trying to conceive of another possibility: keeping the event on the mall, and repairing the mall at the same time.
“What we could easily do is integrate into the competition itself the responsibility to remediate the site,” he says, adding that landscape-architecture students have been “underrepresented” in the contest so far.
“That would make it more interesting,” he says, “and it would reinforce the principle of living lightly on the land.”