Race the Sun

Underdog team wins third place in the Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon

Plenty Magazine online, October 2007

It was the call they’d been waiting for—but not the news they wanted to hear. A group of students from California’s Santa Clara University (SCU) learned in March 2006 they weren’t chosen to compete in the 2007 Solar Decathlon. They had almost made it: twenty international college teams had been chosen to design and build houses powered entirely by the sun; SCU ranked twenty-first.

Then, in May 2006, the team received another call. California Polytech had dropped out. SCU was in.

“We were ecstatic; literally jumping up and down,” says Luke Fuller, a member of the SCU team, which includes students studying subjects from economics to environmental sciences to computer science to art.

The competition, sponsored by the US Department of Energy (DOE) offers teams of students from universities around the world the chance to design and build energy efficient homes. This year’s Solar Decathlon was the third since 2002. Twenty teams from the US, Puerto Rico, Germany, Spain, and Canada transported, rebuilt, and displayed their solar-powered homes October 12 through 20, 2007 on the National Mall in Washington D.C. The teams were judged in ten contests, ranging from Engineering to Comfort Levels (maintaining comfortable humidity and temperature levels).

Students took away more from the event says National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s George Douhlas.

“Until recently, if you were involved in architecture or building construction, the three hundredth thing you talked about was energy use,” he says. “Now, the building leaders of tomorrow will think of energy as one of the top two or three things.”

With energy as the top priority, students got innovative. The SCU team, for instance, installed a computer system that automatically adjusted for energy efficiency and comfort. The SCU team will soon patent environmentally friendly bamboo that can support thousands of pounds. The most important parts of the house, though, are available for purchase now.

“Ours is a home for today,” says James Bickford, a mechanical engineering major and SCU’s project manager. He speaks with pride as he stares at the 650 square-foot deck. “It’s not a house for the future.”

The SCU team was delighted when they found out they’d be participating in the Solar Decathlon, but they faced some huge hurdles. The other schools had a three-month head start, and, with 30 team members, SCU boasted one of the smallest teams. But perhaps the biggest challenge was that the college had no architecture department, and architecture counts more than any other category of the event.

After putting in hundreds of ours, SCU finished its house just in time. The team flew to Washington D.C. on October 3, ready to reassemble the house.

But their house wasn’t there. The truck transporting the house broke down near Omaha. Eventually, the structure arrived—three days later than expected.

The group worked through the night to make up for lost time. Fueled by coffee and determination, the students reconstructed the house. They were so efficient they finished reassembling the structure before nearly every other team.

But their luck took another bad turn the first day of the competition. The team finished eighteenth, nearly last, in the architecture contest.

The judges in the architecture contest might not have been wowed by SCU’s house, but the team did well in the other categories—they earned a perfect score in the Energy Balance and Appliances categories, and they finished in the top ten in all categories but Architecture. The house was hit with hundreds of thousands of visitors, too.

“The SCU home is just the best I’ve seen,” says visitor Ann Spieth. “It’s really something I would look at and say, ‘you know what? I want to live here.’”

After eight days of contests, the tent was crowded on October 19 for the award ceremony. The SCU team members looked tense as they stood waiting for the results in the still, hot air. One team member clasped her hands in prayer, another stared straight ahead, a third bit his lip in anticipation. They’d moved up the ranks during the contest; there was a chance they’d win an award.

Finally, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman introduced the winners. SCRU, or “the Cinderella team from California,” as he called them, won the bronze medal. (Technische Universitat Darmstadt, from Germany, took gold; and the University of Maryland won silver.)

Amid cheers from the audience and high-fives from teammates, Bickford stepped up to accept the award. As he accepted, he said, “Not too bad for the team that took twenty-first place in the beginning.”