A space that talks to nature

A team of SCU students aim to win the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. And save the planet.

A space that talks to nature
Twenty teams from around the world are competing to design and build a sustainable house in the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. A team of Santa Clara students is working hard to win. And, while they’re at it, save the planet.

When you hear the term “solar house,” if you imagine a family of tree-huggers in an A-frame, bundled against the ambient cold and drying their laundry in the breeze, the Santa Clara University Solar Decathlon team is aiming to change your mental picture.

Santa Clara Solar Decathlon Team

Some of the shining SCU Solar Decathletes. Top row from left: Alberto Fonts, Casey Kute, Nora Hendrickson, Frank Altamura, and Ray Lam. Kneeling is Meghan Mooney, and seated are Andrew Smith, Katherine Powell, and James Bickford. Photo: Charles Barry


The whole idea behind the Department of Energy-sponsored decathlon is for university teams to vie in designing and building the most energy-efficient and attractive solar-powered home. The project, says  Agustin Fonts, a junior and team leader for electrical engineering, shows that “having a solar home does not mean compromising.”

Teams from all over the world submitted proposals to enter the decathlon, and SCU was one of only 20 selected to participate. They’re competing alongside teams from Cornell, MIT, and Georgia Tech—as well as universities in Germany, Spain, and Canada. Of the U.S. universities, Santa Clara is the only one west of the Rockies.

In September, all the teams will truck their houses to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where they will show their innovations to a pro­jected 20,000 people touring the “solar village.” The team hopes to convince more folks that “green” has become a pain-free way to live. The goal is to create from commercially available materials and technolo­gies a house that is cost-effective, is comfortable, and, in the words of the architecture scoring criteria, creates a sense of “delight.”

As the students admit, the delight part was not easy to achieve. One of the few engineering-driven teams in the contest (many come out of architecture programs), Santa Clara leapt to the challenge of find­ing and creating environmentally friendly materials and converting the sun’s energy into everything from air conditioning to auto power. But the team’s early designs were, well, a little more concerned with func­tion than with form.

The need to cart the house all the way to D.C. was also on the students’ minds when they created the early plans. “The house is really big, and we have to transport it the farthest distance on land” of all the teams in the 2007 contest, explained junior Raymond Lam, one of the lead civil engineers on the project.

Fair enough. But, as sophomore Meghan Mooney, one of the team’s communications coordinators, insists, “If we’re making technological innovations, that may be fantastic, but if the general public doesn’t like the house, then the innovations don’t get beyond the Solar Decathlon.” Or, as co-coordinator Katherine Powell, a sophomore communication and studio art major, puts it, “Nobody wants to live in a $600,000 trailer home.”

Designing delight
Gerardo Buendía, right, shows off designs to Trevor Mallo.
Gerardo Buendía, right, shows off designs to Trevor Mallo. Photo: Charles Barry

Back to the drawing board, this time with the assistance of Gerardo Salvador Buendía Bonilla, an architecture student from SCU’s sister school in El Salvador, Central American University. Buendía, who spent a month at Santa Clara helping with the plans, explains that his goal was to create “more move­ment” in the design, which the team accomplished by separating the house into two modules.

Buendía also found that he could play with the façade of the house by using a new kind of solar panel. Traditional panels (which SCU’s design also employs) have to be set up at an angle to take advantage of the sun’s rays. But the new product combines the solar panels with a kind of prism, which means they can be integrated into the exterior walls, creating a more “daring” look.

The design’s innova­tions are balanced by elements that draw on classic California archi­tecture. “NanaWalls,” folding glass doors in the living room, create easy access to a Western-style deck. A trellis in the garden echoes a typical design element at the Santa Clara cam­pus, where the house will eventually return as a research laboratory and public information resource.

But architecture is only one of the 10 individual contests in the decathlon. Others include lighting, hot water, and appliances. In the latter category (in case you’re still envisioning a bucket and a wash­board), the team must power appliances to wash and dry 12 towels; cook and serve meals; clean dishes with a dishwasher; and operate a TV/video player and a computer.

Another contest focuses on marketability. For the SCU team, that’s the province of Nora Hendrickson, junior mechanical engineering major. She keeps an eye on the bottom line as part of an effort to prove that sustainability can be economically viable.

Hendrickson likens building a solar house to buy­ing a hybrid car. The initial cost may be higher, but the consumer makes back the investment through long-term savings. “It is projected that a consumer will see a 30 percent return on the initial investment in less than seven years,” Hendrickson says. “Plus, with solar power, if consumers are constantly col­lecting and creating power but not using it to power components of their home, they can sell the power back to their electrical company and make a small profit that way.”

The ethics of architecture
Groundbreaking cheers: Ray Lam in red and Alex Hall in yellow.
Groundbreaking cheers: Ray Lam in red and Alex Hall in yellow. Photo: Charles Barry

The Santa Clara students on the Solar Decathlon team not only believe that alternative energy will prove to be a good investment (“If I had capital right now, I would start a company with solar technol­ogy,” Fonts says) but also that sustainability is an inherently good thing. “Sustainability is an ethical imperative,” says James Bickford, project manager, and a junior mechanical engineering major. “The rights of future generations have to be considered. The way we’re living now, we’re on track to do something devastating to the environment.”

Bickford has been studying the ethics of sustain­ability as the 2006-07 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. His project is to document the ethical choices people confront when they build a house. How, for example, should they balance the short-term cost of “green” materials against the damage that more resource-intensive materials may do to the environment? How should they value the strictly monetary costs of traditional energy in a world with a finite supply of fossil fuels?

One thing Bickford has learned: “Ethics are really, in a sense, an early warning system of what we need to pay attention to.” If the decision-making process includes ethical considerations, such as the common good, builders will pay attention to the long-term impact of their choices on the environment instead of just short-term considerations like the front-end cost of sustainable products. “If we wait for the market to push us into alternative energy, we’ll wait too long,” Bickford says.

Jorge González, professor of mechanical engi­neering and one of the faculty architects of the project, thinks that the urgency of the environmen­tal situation may finally be apparent to the general public. He is encouraged by the growing awareness of global warming. “Nature,” he says, “is talking to us. Climate change is the most clear evidence of our extensive intrusion into the ecosystem.”

What’s in an I-beam?
Students carrying an I-beam
When students and faculty at Santa Clara University began planning a house for the Solar Decathlon, they were looking for a material to make I-beams that would be more sustainable than the usual suspects. Read more about their energy-efficient innovation.
Photo: Charles Barry

The Solar Decathlon, in his view, provides stu­dents with the opportunity to join in that conversa­tion, to create “a space that actually talks to nature.” There is, no doubt, a spiritual aspect to González’s comment, but he also means it in a very concrete way. He means light that comes from opening the blinds; he means cool air from the breeze; he means understanding the local climate and using native materials.

“In the ideal scenario, you can actually feel the impact” of the house on its setting, González says. “You can understand how sensitive the surround­ing ecosystem is. You can see the ways in which the house modifies the landscape, how the balance of energy flows has been modified” as we cut down trees to make room for dwellings or dump the “thermal pollution” created by our air conditioning systems into the atmosphere.

The more the house speaks in harmony with nature, González says, the better its inhabitants feel. He worked on the University of Puerto Rico’s 2005 entry into the Solar Decathlon and reports, “We designed a space where we felt good inside—good because we were comfortable and good because we were making the best effort to connect the space with nature.”

Raised on the three R’s

The need to respect nature is a faith on which most of the SCU team members were raised. Ask why they became interested in the Solar Decathlon, and you’re likely to get a story that goes back a ways. “My child­hood chore was to take out the recycling and sort it,” Powell says. Hendrickson helped to conceive of a hydrogen-powered car, whose only output product was water, with the help of her middle school sci­ence teacher. “My goal is to someday build the design that I thought of in the eighth grade,” she says. Lam says the students themselves have noted their com­mon sustainability background: “We all agree; since we were kids we were taught the three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle.”

Professor Tim Healy, one of the fac­ulty advisors and a member of SCU’s electrical engineering department for 40 years, has never seen a group like it. “I’m amazed at the awareness and enthusiasm for making a better world that these kids bring to the project.”

It’s an awareness the decathlon team hopes to pass down to the next generation. One of their projects is a Sustainability Decathlon for local high schools, an idea developed by Powell and Mooney. The two women have signed up four public and private institutions in a competition to “green” their own campuses. In May, the high schools were judged by SCU faculty on cat­egories including conservation, energy understand­ing, and, of course, outreach. After all, there are middle and elementary school students to start preparing for the 2020 team.

Miriam Schulman
Miriam Schulman
Photo: Charles Barry

—Miriam Schulman is the communica­tions director for SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Make AI the Best of Us

What we get out of artificial intelligence depends on the humanity we put into it.

The Co-Op

Santa Clara University has long been a bastion of interdisciplinary learning. A new fund is taking cross-collaboration to new heights.

Human at Heart

How Santa Clara University is distinguishing itself as a leader in one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation.

A Campus on the Rise

New buildings on campus—count ’em, six in total—aren’t the only changes brought by a successful $1 billion fundraising campaign. Come explore what’s new.