Like some mythical fairy village, the greenest neighborhood on Earth is only visible for a short time each year. Rising from the humid bottomlands of Washington DC’s Tidal Basin, it’s a sort of techno-utopian rebuke to the staid memorials that dot the city. Every one of its 19 homes embodies the net-zero ethos, which dictates that a building produce as much or more energy as it consumes.
Solar Decathlon home image
These are the homes of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, photographed with Instagram. Every one of them is a sort of off-the-grid space ship capable of eliminating carbon emissions or surviving the collapse of the power grid, depending on your view of the principle challenges of the 21st century.
Solar Decathlon image of home net zero solar passive house
Some homes in the Decathlon felt a little like they’d been designed to appeal to as broad a market as possible. Nothing wrong with that — homes are investments, after all.

With its deeply shaded porch, protruding sunroom and shaded breezeway, Tidewater Virginia struck a nice balance between something you’d see in a KB Homes catalogue and the kind of high-tech prefab that might grace the pages of a design magazine like Dwell.

I’ve written up the Living Light house elsewhere, and it gets points for being ultra high-tech. It’s so energy efficient, and its solar panels so productive, that the house has enough spare juice to charge up your electric vehicle. All that technology comes with a price, however: $400,000 and up.
Solar Decathlon image for home
University of Maryland’s effort felt cozy, and no surprise — rather than combining two trailers into a single unit, as other teams had done, they broke theirs into separate homes connected by an overhang. The result is units you can see straight through.

An unconventional exterior and a roomy breezeway made this home feel like one of the roomiest on the lot.

Some homes in the Decathlon felt a little like they’d been designed to appeal to as broad a market as possible. Nothing wrong with that — homes are investments, after all.

With its deeply shaded porch, protruding sunroom and shaded breezeway, Tidewater Virginia struck a nice balance between something you’d see in a KB Homes catalogue and the kind of high-tech prefab that might grace the pages of a design magazine like Dwell.

Mims is a contributor to Good, Technology Review and The Huffington Post, and is a former editor at Scientific American and Grist.org. He tweets @mims.