Evaluating Affordability for U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Richard K. Anderson
While we have a long history of collaborating on groundbreaking projects, many with educational components, rarely does a project provide as many opportunities to expand horizons as the current affiliation with the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

The Solar Decathlon challenges collegiate teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

Like the Olympic decathlon, the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon consists of 10 contests. These contests are designed to gauge how well the houses perform and how livable and affordable they are. Each contest is worth a maximum of 100 points, for a competition total of 1,000 points.

In 2012, Faithful+Gould won the request for proposals to become the Affordability Contest cost estimator for this year’s competition.

In 2012, Faithful+Gould won the request for proposals to become the Affordability Contest cost estimator for this year’s competition. By having expertise in the residential construction industry out of our Minneapolis office, we were ideally suited for the position. The Affordability Contest encourages teams to design and build cost efficient houses that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems. The teams must demonstrate how energy-saving features can help consumers save money today. 

As the lead on the project, we quickly realized everything the Solar Decathlon wanted in a cost estimating consultant is what we are all about. The year-long process began with preliminary cost estimates, followed by design development review, intermediate cost estimates, and in October, final cost estimates in preparation for the on-site walk-through.

It’s amazing what some of the products employed in the houses drive in the marketplace. Our aspect of the judging focuses on construction cost, but the houses are also judged on appeal and architecture, and they can get quite elaborate with amenities like green roofs and renewable energy systems.

This exposition of clean, renewable and efficient energy will showcase technology, education, products, arts and business opportunities.

This year, 20 teams from colleges and universities around the globe (from Kentucky to the Czech Republic) are competing, and the event is fast approaching. The event will take place October 3-13, 2013, in Irvine, CA, where student-constructed houses will line a two to three-block area in Orange County Great Park. Teams earn 100 points for achieving a target construction cost estimate of $250,000 or less. A sliding point scale is then applied to houses with estimated construction costs between $250,001 and $599,999. Houses with estimated costs of $600,000 or more receive zero points. In addition to the competition for the collegiate teams, many other clean energy exhibits will occur onsite. This exposition of clean, renewable and efficient energy will showcase technology, education, products, arts and business opportunities.

The collegiate teams will begin assembly of the houses on the building sites on September 23, 2013. We will be on site to evaluate each team’s prototype, construction methods and final implementation, and we will then participate in a series of 30-minute on site walk-throughs with each collegiate team. Information gathered at the walk-through and the meetings will be used to prepare the official cost estimate for each home. All completed houses must pass a building code inspection and be fully operational.

Open to the public free of charge, the Solar Decathlon gives visitors the opportunity to tour the houses, gather ideas to use in their own homes and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money today.

Open to the public free of charge, the Solar Decathlon gives visitors the opportunity to tour the houses, gather ideas to use in their own homes and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money today.

The large scope and breadth of the Solar Decathlon make it a huge deal in the sustainability community.  Currently in its sixth biennial year, the competition is stiff. Each collegiate team has a website and promotes heavily through social media. There’s a lot at stake for these students, with reputations to be earned and future employment their goal. 

The Solar Decathlon has involved 112 collegiate teams since its inception in 2002, and has established a worldwide reputation as a successful educational program and workforce development opportunity for thousands of students.

In addition to its value as a platform for student achievement, the Solar Decathlon has educated the public about the benefits, affordability and availability of clean energy solutions.

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