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January 2008 Issue

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

On the Maill, Few Functional Landscapes

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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