On the Mall, Few Functional Landscapes
Landscapes can play a role in energy conservation, but you
wouldn’t know it from this year’s Solar Decathlon.
By Seth Wilberding, Associate ASLA
The weather cooperated for this year’s Solar Decathlon.
Unlike 2005, when daily rain minimized morale, clear and sunny skies ripe with
power-generating potential energized competitors and visitors alike. Sponsored
by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable
Energy, the Solar Decathlon is an international biennial collegiate contest to
design, build, and operate a solar residence in just over a week on the
National Mall in Washington, D.C. This year’s competition in mid-October
challenged 20 university teams from the United States, Canada, Spain, and
Germany to compete in 10 (hence the moniker “decathlon”) events related to
architecture and design, engineering, market viability, and communications.
Teams were charged with a twofold task: to marry the best cutting-edge solar
technologies with attractive, functional residential design and to educate the
public about these technologies and their residential applicability.
For all the dramatic solar technologies, contemporary
architecture, and engineering applications showcased in the competition,
resource-saving landscape design was largely absent. Last time, Mary Rickel
Pelletier reported in Landscape
Architecture (February 2006) that of 18 teams, “only six Solar Decathlon
competitors developed landscape design proposals.” Overall, the 2007 teams
proved somewhat more attentive to landscape—nearly half demonstrated at least
one example of site design that moved beyond ornament—but despite all the
national exposure they received, relatively few teams took full advantage of
the opportunity to demonstrate landscape as an integral and viable component of
energy-saving residential design.
Aside from the numerous perfunctory ornamental displays of
potted mums and other exotics, several competitors demonstrated diverse
functional landscape applications with varied success in execution and public
education. A few teams incorporated green roofs, although by definition most
were too high for public view. Perhaps this explains why living walls were also
prevalent this year, and why these were largely configured as vertically
applied green roof structures; Team Montreal, Cornell, and Madrid displayed
their living walls almost as decorative vegetated sculptural pieces, more
living art than living wall. Only the Maryland students showcased their living
wall as a functional landscape element, one that filtered roof runoff into a
rain garden. Several teams also incorporated either native foundation plantings
or meadow vegetation, most notably the University of Illinois students, who
wrapped their home with a tallgrass prairie displayed in planter boxes. Both
the Puerto Rico and Texas A&M students attempted to make the case for
residential aquaculture as a component of water treatment with intriguing front
yard ponds, but these concepts remained underdeveloped and rang more as show
than practice. A handful of teams incorporated rain- and graywater catchment
and filtration systems into their home design with varying degrees of success.
Carnegie Mellon’s catchment system was particularly iconoclastic in appearance—a
stacked set of varied planters linked to a gravity-fed drip irrigation system
that tumbled down the north side of its house.
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