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FLeX House ranks last in Solar Decathlon

A solar house that has been two years in the making came in last place Saturday in the 2011 Solar Decathlon, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Team Florida’s FLeX House, a net-zero energy house, was designed by students from USF, Florida State University, the University of Central Florida and the University of Florida, and competed against 18 international teams in the biennial competition. Florida International University had its own team, which ranked 11th.

On Thursday, the FLeX House, which cost $348,000 in donations to build and transport, will be shipped back to the USF Research Park from the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where it competed.

The competition website stated the winner would be “the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.”

The decathlon held 10 competitions that judged everything from the quality of two dinners prepared in the house to the house’s ability to produce enough energy to fulfill tasks during the week.

The team from the University of Maryland won the contest overall, sweeping first in every category with a total of 951.151 points.

Team Florida finished with 619.006 points.

Erik Colon, a team member and graduate student studying architecture, traveled to the decathlon and said he and other teammates found similarities in the conceptual design of the two Florida homes because they were made with the same climate in mind.

Despite coming in last place, Colon said the house had been getting “really positive feedback from tours.”

“I think one of the things that sets us apart in the competition is that (the FLeX House) is a very open floor plan,” he said. “When you walk inside, the space is very large, especially compared to some of the other homes.”

In the first competition, which judged architectural design and structure, Team Florida came in 12th place, which it held through the market appeal contest before falling in ranking.

In the affordability competition, Team Florida ranked 11th. The team received no points in the hot water and energy balance catagories.

Shane Maxemow, a graduate student studying structural engineering, said more than 10,000 people walked through the house on the first day of tours and more than 250,000 people walked through it during the week. A few visitors even offered to buy the house, he said.

“These homes are meant for everybody that wants it,” Maxemow said. “It’s not just for rich people who have solar panels in their houses.”

The weather got cooler as the competition drew to a close, which added a few complications such as figuring out how to increase the temperature in the house. Colon said his teeth were chattering and there was no sun outside, yet the house stayed surprisingly warm.

“We kind of showcased the passive cooling system, which doesn’t use air conditioners, but just used natural breeze,” he said. “Everyone who came in said it was the coolest house, and understood how useful that was in Florida. (During the competition) it’s getting really cold and we’ve shut off the windows and doors, and it’s a lot warmer inside.”

Maxemow said the inclement weather also allowed the house to show some added benefits.

He said the house collected 59 kilowatt hours of energy from incessant rainfall – enough to power a two-bedroom apartment.

Maxemow said he plans to use concepts from the house, like the shading system that keeps the house cool, in future work.

At the Research Park, the house will serve as a teaching model to those interested in learning about sustainable living and tours will be offered to middle and high schoolers.

Though the house didn’t do as well as anticipated, Maxemow said the FLeX House broke innovative ground.

“It didn’t do as well as we expected,” he said. “But if the public likes it, and we’ve gotten great feedback from the public, it’s one of those things where it’s an eye-opener for people. It’s a great tool for public education.”