Solar Decathlon

By Eric Dorfman

As museum professionals, many of us spend a lot of time thinking about what makes effective, memorable visitor experiences. Most frequently, our attention is focused on more or less traditional springboards for engagement, like galleries or visitor centres. Occasionally, an opportunity comes up to consider something outside the square, which is a great chance to test our assumptions about best practice.

Interior of the house, a different sort of interpretative challenge

We’ve been giving some time to the group of students at Victoria University who are putting together an entry in the Solar Decathlon. For those of you who are unfamiliar with this initiative, it’s a competition held every two years by the United States Department of Energy to build and operate a solar-powered house that’s cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.

The competition involves groups of students from 20 universities in the United States and around the world, designing and building houses that are measured against five criteria:

  • Is affordable, attractive, and easy to live in.
  • Maintains comfortable and healthy indoor environmental conditions.
  • Supplies energy to household appliances for cooking, cleaning, and entertainment.
  • Provides adequate hot water.
  • Produces as much or more energy than it consumes.

Entries will appear on the Mall in front of the Washington Memorial, playing host to more than 300,000 people over the course of the 10 day event.

The team is made up of four students from the school of architecture at VUW: Anna Farrow, Ben Jagersma, Nick Officer and Eli Nuttall.  They’ve been encouraged by their department to enter the competition, after completing an initial design as part of their course.  Since entering, the project has become enormous, involving inputs in landscape design, media and, of course, visitor experience.  VUW is the only group ever to be chosen from the Southern Hemisphere, so it’s an important achievement not only for them and the university, but for New Zealand as well.

Solar Decathlon students Nick Officer, Ben Jagersma, Anna Farrow and Eli Nuttall

It’s a lot of fun interacting with them, brainstorming on the project. One of the most enjoyable aspects has been thinking about how to tell a story while retaining a naturalistic household setting. Unlike exhibition environments, most homes are not, at least overtly, attempting to tell stories about themselves to visitors. Of course, every dwelling tells some sort of narrative around taste, history and experiences. But rarely does it demonstrate its own insulation properties. The goal, of course, is to impress on visitors (especially those who might happen to be judges) with the innovative ways the house addresses the challenges set by the competition, in the relaxed and gracious context of modern living.

The house as it will appear on the Mall - plenty of visitors for the experience

I’ve been impressed with some of the solutions that have come out of our meetings so far. You’ll be able to see the final result when it’s exhibited in Wellington early next year. To find out more about their project, or even get involved. Over the next months, we’ll also be covering our thoughts stemming from our own involvement. See that here.

Image 1: The house as it will appear on the Mall – plenty of visitors for the experience

Image 2: Solar Decathlon students Nick Officer, Ben Jagersma, Anna Farrow and Eli Nuttall

Image 3: Interior of the house, a different sort of interpretative challenge

Eric DorfmanDr Eric Dorfman is a Wellington-based author of popular natural history books, short fiction, articles and documentary scripts. His critically acclaimed book Melting Point (Penguin 2008) explores New Zealand’s responses to the issue of climate change. He is also Director of Eklektus Inc., a collective that produces strategic and visitor experience services to the international cultural sector, and a Teaching Associate in Victoria University of Wellington’s Department of Museum and Heritage Studies.

Twitter: @eklektusinc