Photo by Stephen*Iliffe on Flickr.

An unconventional entry in this year’s Solar Decathlon brings low-footprint home design to city rooftops. It has pleased the crowds, but not the judges because it has two significant drawbacks: comfort and up-front cost.

This year’s Solar Decathlon is being held in West Potomac Park, near the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial. The event will wrap up this Sunday, and you can see this home and others if you head down to the event.

Team New York, comprised of students from City College of New York, brings to this year’s Decathlon (sponsored by the US Department of Energy) an innovative attempt to embrace an oft-neglected urban surface. Their “Solar Roofpod” is a 746-square-foot home specifically intended to be built on top of the existing flat roofs of the four- to ten-story buildings that cover much of the Big Apple.

"Solar Roofpod” may not be winning in the Solar Decathlon’s ratings, but the inventive design has sparked plenty of talk about the feasibility of its premise. At less than 800 square feet, the home resembles in size many Manhattan apartments, but claims to reduce utility expenses by $2,500 annually by generating 11.6 megawatt hours of electricity per year through its solar panel system.

Situated on a rooftop, the home has direct access to light, wind, and water, which the team claims will help reduce overall energy costs in conjunction with the energy-conserving design. The module doesn’t neglect to take its “host building” into account either: a steel beam Dunnage Garden built around the home helps protect the building below from absorbing the pod’s radiation, and provides space for a rooftop garden. 


Photo by Team New York

Despite Team New York’s obvious ingenuity, its current standing at number 18 out of 19 participating teams doesn’t bode well for the potential feasibility of the project on a larger scale.

Although not all of the ten judging metrics have been scored yet, TNY did not fare well on Affordability, coming in second to last with a rating of 61.4 out of 100 possible points. Affordability is an extremely significant metric in this contest, as the Decathlon touts “cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive” home design ideas. Though, perhaps unsurprisingly, the judges’ dismal score hasn’t hurt the public’s impression of the Solar Roofpod. Team New York is currently in second place in the People’s Choice Awards, in which the public votes on their favorite house.

From an urban planning perspective, the Solar Roofpod offers a space-conscious solution for building new single-family units in an already fully-developed neighborhood and promotes greater use of solar photovoltaic panels and rooftop gardens. There may not be much room in New York’s densely packed streets to build new detached townhouses, but there’s certainly open space available on top of its existing buildings to give an individual, or perhaps a couple, room to stretch out.

Solar Roofpod’s popularity seems to indicate willingness on the part of Americans to suspend their disbelief and imagine what a city like New York might look like if, on top of large office and apartment buildings, one might be able to look up and see a diminutive home. But because of its shortcomings in practicality and livability — Team New York came in dead last in the Comfort category earlier this week — the idea may fade into the sunset once the Decathlon ends.