As you might have imagined, there was quite a crowd at the Solar Decathlon, when I meandered to the Sunday session of the event. With all the information, as well as being able to tour the demonstration homes that 20 university teams trucked to Washington was impressive.
However, I only bothered to see the insides of three of the five homes that I was interested in viewing. One of them, built by Team Montreal of the Lawrence Technological University, was closed. Nonetheless, its friendly bilingual guide, Sylvain, tried to explain some of the external features of the home, including the plants growing from the side of the house, which are used to supplement the insulation! (Now, the University of Maryland's home had a similar feature, but had a different use for its plants, which appeared more vigorous.)
Carnegie Mellon's house had a spacious kitchen, which, like many of the others, had a range that used magnetic energy, which is supposedly the most efficient way to cook. (It came from KitchenAid.) It could have been more spacious in feel, had there been more fortuitious decorating choices. The container plants at the backwall help shore up the insulation, as well as collect rainwater (or, at least that's the future intention).
MIT's house had a great design, inside and out. Its panels didn't "look" solar--they look almost like plain shingles. Its living room had a glow wall, composed of layers of superinsulated material, as well as tubes in the front of the house to heat the water. (The tubes themselves were cool to the touch, however.) One feature that had us gawkers intrigued was the grass growing in the containers surrounding the house, which the docent explained was the Ecolawn, which only needs to be watered to establish itself, and then doesn't require any more, nor needs to be mowed, as it only grows to 9" tall, and flops down. The Ecolawn is quite green, with thin strands, which flop over like someone's hair.
Penn State's house, the Morningstar, had an even roomier vibe than MIT's, if that were possible, and is the one with the glass dairy jugs to help control the amount of light that comes into the living area.
By the time I wandered over to the home built by the University of Maryland team, I had a feeling not unlike being at an amusement park, after standing in line after line and you're at the point of dropping...which was unfortunate for me, as I really wanted to see it, along with apparently 200 other people at the time. It looked nice from the outside, and its plant panel is used to help keep down the runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, not insulation.
Oddly, with all the high-, low-, and medium-tech technologies and material, such as the Pennsylvania black slate used on part of Penn State's house, none of the windows of the houses I peeked at seemed to have the simple low-tech feature of screens for the windows. In this context, I think of screens as being environmentally friendly, as they keep me from having to kill critters!