Bending light

The SCU–led Team California built a house of light and wonder.

Bending light

They wanted to show that green living is not a compromise. So, for the International Solar Decathlon, Team California built a house of light and wonder. And it was dazzling enough to win No. 3 on the planet.

On the roof: Team California leader Allison Kopf ’11
Photo: Charles Barry

It is the second Sunday in October, which means movie night on the National Mall. The day is cooling, but things are just about to heat up for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon— the biennial competition that has brought to the heart of the District of Columbia the so-called Solar Village: Twenty sun-powered houses built by students who hail from universities across the United States and Canada and Puerto Rico and Europe. The creations line the front yard of the nation’s capital with their doors open for the world to see.

And boy, do folks see. They come by the hundreds— thousands! tens of thousands!—and they are parents pushing infants, teachers with their classes, proud alumni and admiring architects and engineers, lawyers and diplomats, writers, sculptors, physicists, and government workers with security badges. There’s even one guy dressed as a Canadian Mountie. They glimpse the radiant future taking shape in the hands of these makers and they marvel at the houses.

Not least of the domiciles, when it comes to beauty and thoughtfulness and sheer I-want-to-livehereness, is a C-shaped structure at the west end of the village. It was built by Team California—students from Santa Clara University and California College of the Arts. The design is Golden State through and through: Walls covered in reclaimed redwood enclose three rooms, but the house also wraps around a deck as big as all the interior space combined. The resulting shape testifies that it is possible to reclaim from banality the phrase think outside the box—and breathe into it new virtue and life when talking about the place you call home. They call it the Refract House to evoke the notion of turning preconceptions and of the bending of light itself. A cantilevered design gives it a lightness and drama, with the house seeming to float in the air—the bedroom suspended over earth and the living room jutting out over a landscaped pond.

In addition to being movie night, Sunday is a time for dinner parties. At the Refract House, the appetizer is bruschetta, and it’s served and savored on the patio. As the dinner party gets under way, folks are strolling by, and you can catch snatches of comments admiring and wistful. “They have couches outside! Must be from California.”

The other courses of the meal—coconut curry soup, marinated kale salad, enchiladas, and tiramisu—are served in the dining room. The entire menu is raw vegan. Ethical and health concerns offer one rationale for conscientious 21st-century diners. But in a competition such as this, wherein you’re tracking every kilowatt generated by solar panels and burned up by powering appliances, even red meat carnivores must concede that this meal belies a shrewd strategy: Raw food means no firing up oven or stove. Save that juice and give it back to the grid to earn points in the Net Metering contest. (Though they did warm up the soup.)

It is widely understood that Team California is a serious competitor. In 2007, a crew from SCU became the Cinderella team of the Solar Decathlon, rising from the ranks of not-quite-good-enough-to-make-the-cut (their proposal was scored 21st in a competition that only accepted 20 teams; one team dropped out partway through) to blow the doors off teams from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, and Georgia Tech. They won third overall. In 2009, Team California’s elegant house is the one that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu uses as the setting for his October interview with 60 Minutes. And it’s the one Popular Mechanics zeroes in on to highlight some nifty engineering innovations: recycled water, solar thermal collectors (more on those in a bit), and radiant heating and cooling.

On this first Sunday, the wait to get into the Refract House averages 30 minutes. More than 3,000 pairs of feet tread the reclaimed elm floors. That night, as the dinner parties are in full swing, attached to the banner out in front of the Refract House is the pennant that reads LEADER.

The team will earn high marks from its dinner and movie guests as well. The same film is showing in every house—so what does the trick?

Sean Irwin ’09, who helped lead the construction team for the house, smiles knowingly when asked that question. “It might have something to do with the fact that we have a THX sound system,” he says.

Curiously enough, the movie selected is Christopher Nolan’s 2008 dystopian The Dark Knight, which chronicles the descent of the city of Gotham back into a criminal chaos unleashed by Batman’s new nemesis, the Joker. A bit of intentional irony? If the Solar Decathlon is nothing else, it is a competition powered by audacity and irrepressible optimism.

We are Team California
We built the house we wanted to build: Preet Anand ’10
Photo: Charles Barry

The U.S. Department of Energy launched the Solar Decathlon in 2002, with its National Renewable Energy Laboratory running the show. Competitors design and build solar-powered houses that are both attractive and energy-efficient. Squaring that particular circle, while accomplishing the not-so-simple-in-itself task of making a house in the first place, is no mean feat. Teams invest months of planning and hundreds of thousands of dollars—hence the support of event and team sponsors.

Among the visitors drawn to the National Mall for the first Solar Decathlon was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed eighth-grader from New York State. The sight of the solar village fired her imagination. A few years later she came to Santa Clara and began studying engineering. When the 2009 Solar Decathlon began, Allison Kopf ’11 was a sophomore. She donned the hard hat of team leader and headed up a crew of undergrads, preparing to go toe-to-toe with teams that boasted doctoral candidates in engineering and architecture. But Team California saw things thusly: When life hands you youthful enthusiasm, you make it shine. You come up with creative ways of doing things that can’t be done because you don’t know they can’t be done. You let it be known that your team brings a diversity of background and talent and is the only team from the West Coast, with a lifestyle inspired and powered by the sun, with a mission “to design a bold and luxurious home that demonstrates green living does not require a compromise in lifestyle.” You do not sacrifice amenities but you design something sleek and modern, sustainable and enjoyable.

To build that house, the SCU students enlisted collaborators from California College of the Arts, a San Francisco- and Oakland-based arts school that boasts prestigious programs in architecture, design, and studio arts. The breadth to the team helps make the solar-powered machine for living a vibrant place—down to the space-age light fixture made from recycled plastic straws, the earthtoned textiles on the bed, even the clothes hanging in the closet. Annessa Mattson, an architecture student at CCA who grew up in a small town in Montana, led the architectural team.

During the course of nearly two years on the project, only three students made it from day one through to the finish; in addition to Kopf, they are Kadee Mardula ’11, a mechanical engineering major from Utah who headed up communications, and Richard Navarro ’10, an electrical engineering major from Los Angeles County who took the lead on electrical work. But some 25 specialized teams and more than 300 students and volunteers contributed along the way, for a total of 67,000 hours of work, according to one estimate. Not surprisingly, the left-brainers and the right-brainers butted heads more than a few times. By the time October rolled around, the architects and engineers had learned lessons about thinking through and building a house: where vision meets execution, and the realities of what materials and suppliers and people can and cannot do.

Kopf found the scope and complexity of the whole undertaking seductive, especially “the integration between all the parts,” she says, “how mechanical engineers, civil engineers, and architects all work and interact with that process, and how it all comes together …. That, and the idea that this project allowed you to not only get involved from a social responsibility aspect, but also to build something and see your project come to life.”

You build it, and then it warms your heart when, as you’re guiding folks through the house on the National Mall, a recent engineering alumna from a big research university up the road from Santa Clara comes through and confesses a bad case of envy. Here they are, these undergrads from SCU, and they get to do this? How could she not be jealous?

Fascinating coolness
Boundless energy: Papa Reites at work
Photo: Charles Barry

Not everyone on Team California is a novice. There is one notable exception: veteran of the 2007 competition, Associate Professor of Religious Studies James Reites, S.J., MST ’71, with 15 years’ chairing the department under his belt. A New Orleans native, he joined the Jesuits in 1960 and, during his studies, earned a master’s in sacred theology at Santa Clara. He has taught at SCU since 1975—long before the undergrads on Team California were a twinkle in anybody’s eye. At first glance, he seems an unlikely member of the team: He studied theology in Berkeley and Rome, has interests ranging from theology and feminism to the history of the early Jesuits, and he teaches courses that include Christian Mysticism, Catholic Themes in Literature, and Theology of Suffering. But Papa Reites, as the students call him, worked in construction back in the day. For the past decade he’s led groups of SCU students on immersion trips to Tijuana, where they build houses with Habitat for Humanity. So he has more than his share of hands-on experience. That, and the boundless energy of a 20-year-old.

“During construction, he’d be out there more hours than a lot of the collegeage students, who physically had to give in—because they needed sleep and food,” Kopf says.

Reites isn’t a big man. But he’s wiry. And through months of work and hairpulling frustration, he was ever ready with a broad grin and a bad joke and a shoulder to lean on. He understands how the components of the house work—whether it’s plumbing, electrical, or the controls system. If something stops working, Reites knows how to fix it.

But there’s another role Reites plays. Senior Preet Anand articulates it so: “In the Middle Ages, there were churches that were supposed to have towns built around them. Father Reites is the church that we built this team around.”

Knowing what the Solar Decathlon demands of a person, one can’t help but wonder what it is that makes a body do it once—invest the days and weeks and months of a life—and then come back and do it again. Answering that question, Reites speaks with a jazzman’s rhythm as he riffs on the what and the why behind it all.

“Fascinating coolness,” he says. “To figure out something difficult, to imagine how to make it work, to watch it perform … that’s fascinating coolness. It’s a delight. To be a part of a team, working on something really complex and hard. To have that flash of insight that tells you how to make something cool happen. To watch the faces of the students as they make connections, realize that they just did something brilliant … and they become knowledgeable, learned. All of this is fascinating coolness. You can’t really describe it, you know. You have to live it. Work hard through it. Then you know. You know why something like this is so great. Why it’s a joy, a delight.”

Build it and they will cheer
Night vision: Allison Kopf, left, and Ross Ruecker ’09 underneath the Refract House.
Photo: Charles Barry

In 2007, the house that SCU’s team built had one Achilles heel: architecture, whereby the house was judged 18th out of 20. When the architecture scores are announced on Monday, Oct. 12, 2009, however, it is a different story. That LEADER sign stays right where it’s been: in front of the Refract House, voted No. 1 in architecture. “Beautiful design in every respect,” surmise the judges. “A crystal-clear concept that successfully translates a regional architecture to Washington, D.C. The interior and exterior appears as one.”

The other big contest on Monday is Market Viability. The criteria: How livable? How buildable? What’s the curb appeal? What kind of value are you offering the solar home buyer? The answer for Team California: a tie for No. 3, right behind a “Cajun-style” home from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette—whose house was designed to withstand a hurricane with the force of Katrina—and a house from Rice University, built with low-income community development in mind.

Conceptually and design-wise, nearly all the houses entered in the competition show dramatic evolution from two years ago. Many wear their technology on their sleeve—like Virginia Tech’s Lumenhaus, with sliding metal panels and big blue dots that give it a 1960s-retro-future quality. University of Illinois constructed what is essentially a long white barn, pumped full of heavy-duty insulation that would get you through Midwestern winters. With its arching steel beams, University of Arizona’s Seedpod looks ready to endure the climate extremes of some distant outpost in space. Team Germany set out to surprise and provoke; they built an enormous and fierce black cube—as tall a structure as the rules allow—with every centimeter of walls and roof covered in PV panels.

What’s your story?
Kitchen conversation: Jeff Abercrombie ’10, in black, and CCA student Kyle Belcher guide visitors through the hosue.
Photo: Charles Barry

Tuesday the 13th is a lovely day. Indian summer, the trees just starting to turn from green to gold, temperature in the mid-70s, the sun shining down—and some morning news that knocks the socks off the California solar decathletes: In the Communication contest, they are the winner! The best at telling their story, whether on the Web, the printed page, or walking visitors through the house itself and taking the high-tech razzle-dazzle and translating it into terms that just plain folks can wrap their arms around. Maybe that’s why CNN asked Preet Anand to write for them during the competition.

A San Diego native, Anand is studying engineering physics. And while he does not serve as the head of the communication team, he shows a real knack for explaining thoughtfully and passionately what this team is trying to do. “We built the house to be beautiful and to have people want to live there,” Anand says, “because if your house produces 175 percent of the energy you need and costs only $150,000, and its walls are so thick that the temperature never changes, but no one ever enters it, you’ve still achieved nothing. Our motto is ‘Green living is not a compromise’ because we want people to know green doesn’t mean sacrifice. Green doesn’t mean a lack of quality. You can have both—enjoyment and sustainability.”

As a special component of community outreach, the team borrowed a page from the 2007 decathletes and sponsored a Sustainability Decathlon. They involved seven local high schools that competed in planning and executing projects focused on economic, social, and environmental sustainability in their local communities.

Anand took a special interest in the water system, including the way the gray water flows from the washing machine, sinks, and shower into a planter that filters the water through sand and gravel and into the terraced garden, where many good things grow: rows of purple kale and green chard, broccoli and cauliflower, sage and basil and rosemary. Rainwater collects in the lovely landscaped pond. Water, despite receiving such attention in the Refract House, is not a high priority for the Solar Decathlon. “But it’s a high priority for the state of California,” Anand says.

Tuesday afternoon, in the shadow of the Smithsonian Castle, a schoolboy walks by singing the theme song from Transformers. “Robots in disguise … ”

A monarch butterfly flutters by.

At the Refract House, the lines continue to grow. Professor Tim Hight, who chairs the Department of Mechanical Engineering and serves as faculty advisor for the team, stands at the exit of the house, thanking folks for visiting. Then he looks up and laughs in disbelief. “They’re going through our barriers!” he says. “They’re desperate to get inside.”

Thermal dynamics
Only connect: Tim Sennott ’09
Photo: Charles Barry

Once inside, among the cool factors the visitors encounter is radiant tubing that both heats and cools the house. There’s an interactive energy-monitoring system that allows team members to track how much energy they’re producing and consuming, and allows control of every aspect of the house remotely: from the shutters to the water heater. A Mac Mini runs the whole shebang, and the computer in turn can be controlled via an iPhone app the team developed. (That little number, developed by Justin Miller ’10, in turn caught the eye of the producers of NPR’s All Tech Considered.) There’s a beauty to that level of control—and a danger, too, at least in the midst of a competition like the Solar Decathlon. When you’re trying to save every kilowatt possible while at the same time keeping the house comfortable—and, meanwhile, the weather is turning on you—then at two in the morning you can still be tinkering with the controls. In the case of Team California, Tim Sennott ’09 and Ross Ruecker ’09 are the ones staying up until the wee hours coaxing the numbers to go their way.

Sennott leads work on the thermal systems for the house; his research for a senior design project on heating, cooling, hot water, and energy calculations are what drew him onto the team. He just graduated in June, but in the thrilling and exhausting months building up to the final leg of the competition, he looked the part of the grizzled, bearded veteran. In July, it fell to him to break the bad news to the team that they had to start from scratch with their plans for powering the cooling system. They had set their sights on a solar absorption chiller, which uses the power of the sun to heat a chemical liquid that, in turn, cools the house. Chillers are typically used in large-scale commercial buildings, not for individual residences; they’re efficient, but they’re also complicated and typically pretty large. The team found a startup company in Germany that could provide a chiller small enough for the Refract House. The only problem was that the startup—which had been undergoing some reorganizational growing pains—let it be known only weeks before the house was supposed to be complete that they wouldn’t be able to provide the chiller after all. Sennott led crash efforts to redesign the cooling system to be electric-powered. Engineering-wise, the redesign had a fraction of the complexity that the chiller system had. And in reflection, Sennott says, it was much more appropriate to the house; no doubt it helped in the Market Viability Contest. But it cost a few sleepless nights.

In the 2009 Solar Decathlon, the contest carrying the most points is Net Metering: how many surplus kilowatts the house generates to give back to the grid. Which means the rules of the Solar Decathlon favor a massive array. The German house—essentially a two-story solar plant with living space inside—would dominate, no question.

Cloudy skies and rain are predicted from Wednesday on. It is clear the Refract House isn’t going to be a front-runner in Net Metering. Again, it’s up to Sennott to break the bad news to the team. The question is, will they be able to make up the points elsewhere to stay in the game?

Blue skies: the Refract House on the National Mall
Photo: Charles Barry

On a cold, drizzly Friday morning in the awards tent, they get the answer. Sennott and the rest of the team have a moment in the sun when the awards for engineering are announced: Functional? Check. Innovative? Check. Reliable? Check. Clear and elegant simplicity when it comes to documentation? Check. The No. 2 award for engineering goes to … Team California!

But the day isn’t over yet. The results of the Net Metering are in. No surprise here: Team Germany takes first, Illinois second. With the inclement weather, Team California winds up 12th in this contest.

And now the envelope, please: For the overall winner in the 2009 International Solar Decathlon, Department of Energy Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman does the honors. He speaks of Wilbur and Orville Wright and dreams of flying and a can-do American optimism. Starting with third place, he says, “A winning spirit has guided this team throughout this competition, ranking consistently in the top three of nearly every contest. This team excelled in some of the most prestigious subjective contests. This team’s project broke out of the box and masterfully executed the melding of interior and exterior space, while offering a consistently high standard of learning experience to visitors. The team really embodies what this competition is all about … ”

Wait for it … Yes! Team California!

The crowd goes wild.

And so does Team California. Awards are presented, many photos taken, TV and radio interviews and hugs given and backs slapped. Second goes to Illinois, first to Germany. Over at the Refract House, they are no longer carefully guarding the energy and heat of the home they built. They are opening up every door that slides and they are turning up the THX sound system and they are dancing on the deck, leaping into the chilly pond—it can’t be any colder than the Pacific off the San Mateo Coast, right?— and they are singing along with the stereo, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair …”

Word gets out quick: There’s a party going on at the Refract House. You know the one.

It’s wet and miserable outside, but who cares? They are young and exuberant and far beyond exhausted—and look at what they’ve done. This house! Their home! Take off your boots! Jump in the water! Dance!

Banner day: Construction team member Mikell Warms ’10
Photo: Charles Barry

They built their house and they took it to the Mall. They took their story to Congress, too, at a breakfast meeting hosted by Rep. Mike Honda with him and Zoe Lofgren J.D. ’75, one-time SCU law student Sam Farr—who has a house off the grid on California’s Central Coast—and staffers from other representatives in the house. Over in the Senate, they snapped a pic with Barbara Boxer and they talked at length with Dianne Feinstein. And they are not done yet.

By the time you read this, the Refract House will likely have found its next home: in downtown San Jose, right across the street from City Hall, anchoring a showcase block for green living. Naturally, the mayor of Santa Clara, Patricia Mahan J.D. ’80, has expressed an interest in the house as well. As has the U.S. Ambassador to Chile, who would like to bring the Refract House to Santiago and open it to tours. There are logistics and bureaucratic hoops to be worked out all around; more on that story as it develops.

Papa Reites led another group of students to Tijuana to build houses at Thanksgiving. As for the students, some are headed for (or have already landed) their first jobs. Others are looking at grad school. During the home stretch of her undergrad studies, Allison Kopf is trying to develop a program in sustainable engineering at SCU: connecting engineering, business, and science. Tim Sennott has already started work here in the Bay Area. He says he hopes that future students get the chance to be involved in the Solar Decathlon—for, indeed, Santa Clara is taking a breather from the 2011 competition. The deadline for proposals is already past. What about 2013? That remains to be seen.

“The whole premise of the competition is really kind of insane when you consider the inexperience of everybody going into it, and the time demands, and everything else,” Sennott acknowledges. “But really, there’s nothing else that compares as far as an educational experience.”

After graduation in June, Preet Anand has an interest in putting his engineering skills to work in mass transit. “Everyone hears me talk about how I love trains,” he says. “My dream is to eventually make my hometown of San Diego a city where I can either bike or take a train or bus to work and come back without driving a car.”

To those who know San Diego, that seems like a tall order.

“It is,” Anand says, not missing a beat. “But I’m a tall guy.”

Connie Coutain and Heidi Williams contributed to this report.

Read, hear, and see much, much more about the Refract House here.

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