Solar panels and tiles glint in the Southern California sun, as visitors meander down a block of modular houses in the middle of a large open space in Irvine.
This is the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, an event that pits 19 college teams against each other in the quest to build the most energy efficient -- but still affordable -- home. This year is the first time the solar decathlon has taken place outside of Washington D.C.
"You can really tell a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into building these houses," said Olivier Glaser, after he finished touring some of the homes. "It's really awe-inspiring and it makes me look forward to the future of architecture and home building. It gives you a little glimpse of what we can expect in the coming years."
The student teams -- from as far away as the Czech Republic and Austria -- spent the past two years working on their entries. They trucked or shipped their houses to Orange County and had a little more than one week to assemble the high-tech houses.
"In our education, we are taught so much about design and so much about the theoretical aspects of how you build and how you engineer homes, but that is so different from when you actually sit down and try to put it together" said Rob Best of the Stanford University team. "Whereas we thought we thought through every detail, as soon as I got my team out there to put hammer to nail, we realized all of the things we had forgotten."
Participants in the solar decathlon in Irvine came from as far away as the Czech Republic and Austria. The Czech Republic's entry (pictured) features exterior slats that keep the house shaded from the sun, helping to regulate the temperature inside.
Best said the decathlon is a unique opportunity for architecture and engineering students to take a project through design and build.
Stanford managed to get its entry put together, with help from a sledgehammer to knock the house back into place after it shifted in transit.
The Stanford team’s entry features reclaimed wood throughout. It is designed around a core module that includes all of the mechanical, plumbing and electric systems. Hiding inside the ceiling are panels made from a wax-like substance that helps absorb daytime heat in order to keep the house cooler on warm days.
Twenty-one-year-old Derek Ouyang is the project manager.
"We have custom light switches that actually have glowing feedback on how much energy you're using," said 21-year-old project manager Derek Ouyang. "We have hands-free sinks that let you be more hygienic and water-efficient. And we even have moving art pieces that take data from your photovoltaic production and show that to you in an abstract way."
Stanford House Project Manager Derek Ouyang gives a tour of the home during the solar decathlon, explaining the different energy-saving features.
That geometric wooden sculpture hanging on one of the walls has wooden fins that move, based on how much energy the house is producing and how much energy the house is using. The Stanford designers say it gives a real-time assessment to let those living in the home better track how they use energy.
"You can have as smart of home as you want and can do all these amazing things for you," Ouyang said, "but if the people living in that house still remain ignorant about the way they use energy, they're still wasteful. Then we're not really solving the ultimate problem."
Visitor Jacqueline Rudge brought her high school-aged daughters to the solar decathlon so they could get extra credit for a chemistry class. She said it was fun to watch her girls make the connection between what they learned in their class and the solar houses.
"I am flabbergasted about the genius and the things that are going on in my lifetime. That is so cool," Rudge said. She pointed out that of the homes they visited, the Stanford House was their favorite.
Across the way, students from Cal Tech and the Southern California Institute of Architecture, or SCI-Arc, fiddled with cords and speakers, trying to get their projection screen set up for "Movie Night."
All teams had to show the same movie, the James Bond flick "Skyfall," to visiting team members.
The teams rated each other on movie night and two dinner parties in the houses. Those home entertainment points figure into the total score, along with architecture, affordability and other elements.
The Cal Tech/SCI-Arc team's 600-square-foot house is comprised of two modules that split open in the middle by moving on rails.
The Stanford House, Stanford University's entry into the solar decathlon, features reclaimed wood and high-tech, energy-saving touches. After the competition, the home will go to a nature preserve in Northern California, where a park ranger and his family will move in.
The expansion creates more room and more airflow. Grass, a wooden deck and a water feature fill the space between the two open modules. The team says it provides a blend of the outside and inside.
Team member Aaron Ryan said the house relies on robotics, and is called “DALE,” short for Dynamic Augmented Living Environment.
"DALE senses temperature and humidity and light. It takes in predictive weather data," Ryan said. "And it makes suggestions to the user through a touch-screen panel and an iPad application about how the user might either open or close the house instead of turning on the air conditioner."
Students designed DALE's living room furniture to hang on the walls when it's not being used. Those walls separating the living room and kitchen from the guest room/office and master bedroom can move, depending on how the person living there wants to use the space.
"People kind of tag in on one idea that they see and they go, 'Oh, wow! I could do that at my house,'" Ryan said. "That's the kind of thing that DALE produces that makes people smile really. They realize that they could take a part of DALE away from them and do that where they are."
But Ryan said DALE does not have a voice.
"No, this isn't HAL. This is DALE," Ryan laughed, making a reference to the movie, "2001: A Space Oddysey."
"Our main concept is to go away [from] the large McMansions. The wasted space, the unused bedrooms, the hallways that lead to nowhere," said team member Nicole Violani of SCI-Arc. "So our concept is to show that you can have all the amenities and the comfort that you would need and want in a small footprint."
The overall winner of the federal government's Solar Decathlon doesn't win prize money, but they get bragging rights until the next solar decathlon in 2015.