At the Solar Decathlon, the University of Maryland cleans up with “WaterShed”

 There were many winners at the Department of Energy’s bi-annual Solar Decathlon last week, held in Washington D.C.

There were winners in categories like Affordability, Communications, Engineering, Market Appeal, and the People’s Choice Awards (which sounds like it should reward  “Grey’s Anatomy” or Ray Romano, but is actually an Internet-based award chosen by the public).

But there could only be one big winner, and the victor had been waiting for four long years to hear its name called. The University of Maryland, which in 2007 came in second place, emerged victorious thanks to their “Watershed” house, judged to be the best among the 20 finalists on display.

The Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Director, Richard King, said ” Maryland’s Watershed is a beautiful house, judged first place in Architecture, which also performed impeccably in measured contests. This team mastered their strategies to ensure they excelled in all 10 contests.”

“There are lots of tears of joy and relief,” Architecture Team Leader Leah Davies told reporters after the victory was announced. “We are all so proud of the thought and hard work put into WaterShed, and really excited that our message was viewed in such a positive way.”

The president of the University of Maryland was equally enthused and impressed.

“The innovation, creativity, skill, vision, cooperation, determination, and, yes, energy displayed by this team is both remarkable and a joy,”  Wallace Loh said. “I couldn’t be more proud of their work and accomplishment. These students, faculty and mentors have dedicated themselves to addressing critical needs of Maryland, the nation, and other countries. They’re the perfect example of what a public research university is all about.”

So, what exactly is “Watershed” and why was it deemed so award-worthy? Let’s take a look at it.

First of all, the stated primary purpose of Watershed, according to the team’s website ( is for it to be “a solar-powered home inspired and guided by the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, interconnecting the house with its landscape, and leading its dwellers toward a more sustainable lifestyle.”

Some of the impressive features of Watershed include…
– constructed wetlands, filtering storm water and grey water for reuse
–a green roof, retaining stormwater and minimizing the heat island effect

–an optimally sized photovoltaic array, harvesting enough energy from the sun to power WaterShed year-round
edible landscapes, supporting community-based agriculture

– a liquid desiccant waterfall, providing high-efficiency humidity control in the form of an indoor water feature

– a solar thermal array, supplying enough energy to provide all domestic hot water, desiccant regeneration, and supplemental space heating.

– engineering systems, working in harmony and each acting to increase the effectiveness of the others.

– a time-tested structural system that is efficient, cost-effective, and durable.

– So what made the Maryland project so successful?

– Let’s take a look at some specifics of how it came together. The Watershed project took two years to complete, as a team of more than 200 students and faculty at the College Park campus  including architecture, engineering, environmental science and technology, plant sciences, landscape architecture, and numerous others joined forces.  Some of the more unique features of the project stood out and helped Maryland win the contest by more than 20 points over second-place Purdue University.

– The project’s twin focus on efficient, renewable energy and water quality and conservation was impressive, the judges said. The Watershed house was designed as a micro-scale ecosystem, emulating the environment of the Chesapeake Bay watershed (which of course is located in Maryland). The plants at the Watershed are more than landscape, they are part of the house living systems, which produce food and store, purify, and manage water.

The modular green roof slows rainwater runoff while simultaneously improving the house’s energy efficiency. Rainwater from the roof is collected in a cistern – deep pools harboring wetland plants – on the east side of the water axis. Grey water from the shower, lavatory, clothes washer, and dishwasher is collected and filtered through constructed wetlands on the west end of the water axis. This stored and filtered water can be reused to irrigate and nourish the landscape without consuming precious potable water.

Another interesting part of Watershed is its vertical garden. This 12-foot-high feature, in addition to providing food for the house, provides shade and temperature moderation in the summer, while also letting in the low winter sun to provide light and warmth to the house (thereby, of course, reducing heating costs during the freezing winter months.)

It also protects the glass kitchen doors from overexposure to the western sun, while also filtering particulates and toxins from the air.

The financial savings from a garden like the Watershed’s can be huge: According to the team’s official website, a 600 sq. ft (20×30) home garden costs just $70 to plant and maintain and generates $530 of profit in fresh food for the homeowner.In short, it looks like the judges made a strong and sensible choice in awarding the top honor to Maryland. Here’s a short video tour of the house:

[vodpod id=Video.15532652&w=425&h=350&fv=%26rel%3D0%26border%3D0%26]

Besides the Maryland project, a host of other Solar Decathlon winners in individual categories were announced. They included:

Communications, Home Entertainment, and Market Appeal: Middlebury (Vt.) College won all three categories, for their ” exemplary communications materials, public tours, and website.”

Affordability: Team Belgium AND Parsons the New School for Design and Stevens University (Tie): This award was shared by the Belgian team for their “Eco-Cube” project, and the combined efforts of two New York-based teams, the New School for Design and Stevens University for their “Empowerhouse” project, which cost just under $230,000 to design.

People’s Choice Award: Appalachian State (N.C.) University:  This was awarded for the school’s Solar Homestead project.

Engineering: New Zealand: for its First Light House project.

Energy Balance: New Zealand, Purdue, Tennessee, Florida International, Maryland, Illinois, SCI-Arc/Caltech (7-Way Tie)

Appliances: Illinois, for its sustainable disaster-relief house project.

Hot Water: New Zealand, Tennessee, Parsons NS Stevens, Appalachian State, Maryland, Ohio State, SCI-Arc/Caltech (7-Way Tie)

Comfort Zone: Ohio State

  • There were 20 teams chosen as finalists in the Solar Decathlon, and a selection process that took two years to narrow down. Judging was done in Washington, D.C.  from Sept. 23-Oct. 2. The competition is held once every two years in Washington.For a closer look at eighth-place overall finisher, the University of Tennessee’s Living Light House, check out my article on their team here.


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