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Solar-powered houses

Normally I keep this blog within the confines of Andalucia, since that's what the site is about, but today I want to go north, to Spain's capital. Forgive me for taking geographical liberties, but this event is both fascinating and relevant, not least because Andalucia is an area drenched in sunshine most of the time, and the event in question is all about "Lorenzo". For Madrid is hosting a competition of ecological houses, called Solar Decathlon Europe. Originating in the US, where it was organised by the US Department of Energy, and held in Washington DC in 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2009, it is taking place here in Spain this year, and again in 2012, alternating with the US event until 2013. So what is it? It's a competition where teams from architecture and engineering departments of universities around the world compete to design houses which must use only solar energy, be completely self-sufficient, constructed sustainably, and also be comfortable. It is called the Decathlon, because there are ten areas where the designs must meet certain strict criteria, from architecture, to engineering, solar and hot water systems, and innovation. On 27 June, three winners will be chosen. Teams are from China, Finland, the US, France, Germany, the UK (Nottingham Uni) and Spain, which has five entries, including one from Seville University. Each of the 17 teams was given 100,000 euros by the Spanish Ministry of Housing to build their vivienda. What is great about this competition/event, is that in one fell swoop, it promotes a) ecological living, b) energy efficiency, c) green design, and d) education. What child, seeing one of these cutting-edge solar-powered buildings, as explained by energetic, enthusiastic architecture students from all around the globe, would not want to be like them, to design a super-clean-and-green house, and then go on to build more like them where people will actually live (one hopes - unless they're like concept cars...). The list of parallel activities is impressive - conferences, discussions, exhibitions, workshops and children's events on recycyling rubbish, saving energy and urban sustainability. Even their (bilingual) website is excellent, clear and easily navigable, with pop-up windows showing everything from time-lapse videos of the houses being constructed last week, information and photos of each entry, to competition rules and regulations, and great detail about the exact location in Madrid, called Villa Solar (between the Royal Palace and the River Manazanar), and why it was chosen. Out of the 17 houses, most are made from wood, considered to be the material with least environmental impact. The majority are angular in appearance and modular in construction (prefabricated box+panel design), using lightweight materials, making them adaptable to the space they occupy, and the needs of their occupants. A few stand out, both visually and for their innovation. One of the two Chinese entries, from Tongji Uni in Shanghai, is a beautiful house with a traditional curved roof, made of bamboo, which is easily renewable and grows all over China. But the house which has appeared in most photos is called the "Fablab House", and was designed by students from the Institute of Advanced Architecture of Catalonia. Ingeniously, it is curved (technical name: paraboloid) and bendy, and can be positioned at the ideal angle to optimise absorption of the sun's rays at every hour of the day, throughout the year. Raised above the ground, it is covered in photovoltaic-imprinted textiles, more adaptable and cheaper than the traditional photovoltaic cell panels, although less energy-efficient. Did you know that you can cook using direct solar power? At SDE, you can see a solar cooker in action, and you can taste solar-power-made paella. The cooker is positioned in front of what looks like a very shiny satellite dish. One very low-tech, but accessible and entertaining, example of harnessing the power of the sun. Unfortunately I will not be visiting Villa Solar in person, much as I'd have loved to, but if you're in Madrid, it is definitely worth checking out. Especially if, like me, you live in a place with as much sun as Andalucia, where such innovations don't seem so far-fetched.
Blog published on 21 June 2010