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Okay, so I’ve waited long enough to tell you about my absolutely amazing (and absolutely fah-REE-zing) trip to Washington, DC. I fully intended on writing this post earlier in the week, but you know, life happens. Since I’m cramming a lot into one post, just warning you, there are a lot of pictures. More can be found on my Facebook album if these aren’t enough eye candy for you. As I mentioned just before taking off for the trip, the people at Plastics Make It Possible contacted me and asked if I would be interested in going to the 2011 Solar Decathlon. The Solar Decathlon is a multi-category (ten, to be exact) collegiate competition where students (really, really smart ones) design, invent, and build solar-powered houses that are affordable, energy-efficient, and attractive.

Solar house

Interested in touring 20 cutting edge examples about the future of green housing? In Washington, DC? For free? Is this a trick question?

Considering this was the first time I’ve ever been offered such a thing, I was certainly suspicious. But I did some research, read up on the contest, and decided I wanted to go. It took roughly five minutes.

Despite the fact that this was a solar competition, the day of the tour was cold, dreary, and wet. Luckily, the wonderful team at Ogilvy PR thought ahead and gave us ponchos and umbrellas so it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been, but there wasn’t really anything sunny about it.

Wet wooden walkway

Unless you count my spirits, that is – I was pretty excited to be a part of the “media group” and spending the day with HGTV’s Brooks Utley.

Sarah and Brooks Utley

Plus, the rest of the blogging crew was great — they were all wonderfully nice, even when soaked to the bone.

Group in front of the White House

The first house was a shining example of what this competition is all about: innovation, creativity, and forward thinking. In case you’re not sure what I mean, that’s code for it looked really, really weird.

"Outsolation" house

I couldn’t decide whether it looked more like a marshmallow or a roll of Quilted Northern. Despite the odd look, the SCI-Arc/Caltech entry was pretty creative (and green, of course) – the quilting you see on the outside was termed by the students as “outsulation” – instead of putting thermal protection on the inside of the walls, it was stuck to the exterior. The material itself was pretty interesting to find out about, too: it’s recycled denim, tightly packed and covered with a special, all-weather, tear-proof vinyl. The pattern can be stuck on in any fashion, so if you weren’t crazy about the whole toilet paper look, you could choose another. It wasn’t exactly something that I’m dying to go out and suddenly adorn the Ugg-duck with, but it was definitely neat to see.

Quilted exterior

At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Purdue house. Their goal was to create as traditional of a house as the average homeowner might want to see.

The Perdue House
Purdue house

You could say I was impressed by its unimpressiveness; if you weren’t viewing it at a solar competition, you might never have noticed just how much thoughtful and innovative planning really went into the space. In fact, it was the only house in the competition that included a garage (each house was limited to a maximum of 1,000 square feet). I’m easily pleased though, I suppose. The thing I liked most wasn’t the countertops made with plastic (Corian):

Counter tops

It was the light fixture in the dining room and the pendants above the kitchen counter. They were cylinder lights with a clear Lucite box built around. And decorated with sand! It’s a perfect DIY project:  a little tape, some non-yellowing spray adhesive, and a sprinkling of sand, and you’ve got one cool light fixture. Plenty of opportunity to get creative, too – who says the sand has to be beige?

Lucite light fixture

But by far, my favorite house was the house from Appalachian State University. Instead of just accepting that solar panels leave a lot to be desired aesthetically, they used their look to incorporate them into a functional and attractive design concept.


By building it into the roof, it (quite happily) protected us from the rain while casting a very cool, modern shadow across the exterior deck of the house.

solar panel used as covering
Appalachian State

Normally solar panels are angled against the roof for maximum solar energy absorption, but they laid them flat instead and opened up the bottom to get sun (well, when it shines that is) from above and below.

Solar panels as cover

It was gorgeous. The rest of the house was built to look like a rustic cabin; I would love to have this place as a second home up in the mountains (if it weren’t for the cost, obviously).

App State

They also added acrylic LED backlit sheets to an entire wall in the primary bedroom. I loved their soft glow.

Brooks and rep

I recognized plenty of decor companies like Flor and Ikea. It was great to see some familiar faces furniture. And can you believe that almost everything I’ve mentioned in this post is made of plastic? Some items may even grace the Ugg-duck in the near future.

vinyl composite decking
vinyl composite decking – all weather and no visible screws!
Resin sink basin
resin sink basin

After the house tour, we took a few hours to see some sights and then go to dinner. Before I knew it, it was the next morning and time to leave. But I got one quick shot of the beautiful ceiling of my hotel before heading back to the airport. Many thanks to the Ogilvy PR crew for such a wonderful trip.

Hotel ceiling

Another post will be coming up soon with a few more highlights and a mention of a really cool interactive house design site, but all of that will be coming up next week. So wish me luck over the weekend – I’ll be digging a post hole but daydreaming about a vinyl deck!

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  1. I love the cabin house! I also like the traditional house :) I'm a sucker for tradition LOL

    Looks like a fun/great trip!

  2. That was a cold but fun trip. Nice roundup.

    Looks like you figured out how to take excellent shots with that D3100.