University of Maryland wins Solar Decathlon for house design

The University of Maryland took first place Saturday in the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon 2011 with a solar-powered, energy-conserving WaterShed House that was inspired by the Chesapeake Bay.

The design features a green roof that retains rainwater, solar panels that provide year-round power and a patent-pending indoor waterfall — key factors in an international competition that required the winning home to produce as much energy as it consumes, or more.

Judges recognized the house for its beauty and comfort, its performance, and a message of sustainability throughout its design, according to a university news release. The Terps team, one of 20 finalists, won in several of the contest's 10 categories, including architecture and energy balance. Purdue University finished second, and an entry from New Zealand came in third.

"The students set an incredible goal for themselves and worked more than two years on a project to achieve energy independence and get beyond fossil fuels," said David Cronrath, the university's dean of architecture, planning and preservation. "They went a step farther and worked on how to preserve the environment, conserve water and purify it through natural processes and grow food in small plots. We are extremely excited and proud of their achievement."

About 200 students and 18 university departments worked on the project, which involved designing, building and ultimately transporting the structure to West Potomac Park in Washington D.C., where it will remain on display with its competitors through 5:30 p.m. Sunday.

Designers said Maryland's entry offers solutions to water and energy shortages by minimizing water use, managing stormwater on site, and filtering pollutants from so-called "gray" water from the shower, washing machine and dishwasher.

In a design that reflects the complex ecosystems of the Chesapeake Bay, WaterShed not only conserves water, but produces resources with the water it captures, said Amy Gardner, associate professor of architecture at the university and lead adviser for the project. The focus is on efficient, renewable energy as well as water quality and conservation.

"This win means the team's vision and exceptionally hard work over the course of two years has become a reality," Gardner said. "We have shared our message of sustainability with the world. With our twin focus on alternative energy and the importance of water, we are fulfilling our mission of helping the world be a more sustainable place."

WaterShed uses far less fossil fuel than a conventional house, the students said.

"Our larger objective is to educate people on sustainability," Cronrath said. "To that end, the students did a marvelous job."

The judges also rated the home "beautiful and remarkably comfortable" and awarded it second place In the market appeal category. Students said WaterShed would be ideal for a working couple, who might use it for a home and office. Its interactive systems will ultimately save on utility costs.

"This home is most definitely a reality," Cronrath said. "It could be implemented today."

While Gardner and her team are celebrating a hard-fought win, they face one more challenge: They would like to sell the home.

"We are looking for a final home for WaterShed," she said.