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In the international Solar Decathlon competition, the team from Santa Clara didn’t make the initial cut. But somehow they blazed a dazzling trail from almost-ran to third in the world.
The houses opened to public tours over the weekend. Visitors lined up by the score, and Santa Clara students heard over and over how people loved this house—loved it. Sure, some of the other solar-powered homes were space-age cool—like something the Jetsons would own—but this was the one regular folks would want to buy. It felt like home, and it felt like California: Mission-style architecture with an enormous deck and a folding glass wall that opened the living room to the outside.
But Monday, Oct. 15, did not go well. The scores were announced for the first contest of the Solar Decathlon: architecture, with more points at stake than any of the nine contests to follow.
The SCU crew was there on the National Mall, watching nervously as the woman from the Department of Energy slid the blue and white markers bearing team names into the slots on the leaderboard. The top five teams in the architecture contest were posted—no Santa Clara. Then the top ten. The top fifteen. Nada. Finally, there they were, at number 18—third to last. Before the day was over, things would only get worse.
Not only was Santa Clara a latecomer, but it was up against schools that had been there before—in 2002 and 2005—and against renowned engineering powerhouses with massive graduate programs and their own schools of architecture. There were teams from MIT and Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and Penn State, Maryland and Illinois, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell. There were teams from Canada and Spain and Germany and Puerto Rico. And there was the returning two-time champion, the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Adding to the long-shot odds was a major geographic hurdle. SCU was the only U.S. school west of the Rockies in the competition. Their house would have to be built to withstand a trip over the Sierra and across the desert and the Great Plains and the Mississippi—3,000 miles of interstate to the nation’s capital.
Made in California
They christened it the Ripple Home—as in ripple effect. The house was meant to offer simple innovation and familiarity: insulation made from recycled blue jeans, kitchen tiles made from recycled bottles, a deck made from recycled plastic, outdoor furniture constructed from old wine barrels, and I-beams made from bamboo. The house would not be overly expensive; the prototype cost about $300,000 to build; commercially it could be produced for less than $250,000. (Californians take note: Land extra.)
One modest goal was to change the way that people see the world.
The house incorporated cutting-edge engineering with an eye toward energy efficiency. The NanaWall—those slick folding doors to the living room—sandwiched argon gas between panes of glass to trim heat loss. Lighting combined LED and compact fluorescent technology; the appliances included a super-insulated refrigerator and an induction cooktop, which generates heat through spinning magnets and heats just the pans, not the air around the burners. The monitoring systems would help the team keep a tight rein on energy balance.
The battery pack was the biggest of any house’s in the competition. Its solar panels were angled specifically for the longitude and latitude of Washington, D.C. For heating and cooling, the house sported a solar-thermal absorption chiller—one of two like it in the world. Senior Ryan Leary, a computer engineering student, impishly explained to visitors how the four-chambered chiller worked: “Hot water goes in. Magic happens. Cold air comes out.” Previously these devices were only built for massive commercial structures. But SCU’s use of the prototype helped the manufacturer obtain UL approval and take the chiller to market.
Under the project direction of mechanical engineering major James Bickford, the team sought strength in diversity; along with students of civil, mechanical, electrical, and computer engineering were others studying anthropology, biology, communication, computer science, English, environmental studies, marketing, philosophy, physics, and studio art. They hailed from Turkey, Nepal, Mexico, El Salvador, Morocco, Spain, and the United States. Together they tackled plumbing and wiring, communications and construction, HVAC and interior design, budget and sponsor relations.
In retrospect, Bickford says, the underdog story made for a good hook. He talks with an air of confidence that might be mistaken for false bravado. But he’s shown the ability to get up in front of corporate leaders and government officials and talk the talk. And he’s quick to point out that what seemed like disadvantages on the outside were, in fact, advantages in disguise. One of the smallest schools in the competition? “From day one we had the president of the University working with us and supporting us,” Bickford says. Only school on the West Coast? “Look at our location,” he says. “We’re capitalizing on the second or third biggest solar center in the world—that’s soon to be the first.” Point taken; more than 50 businesses ultimately assisted the SCU team.
So did SCU engineering faculty—including mechanical engineering Professor Jorge Gonzales, who drew up the initial proposal; mechanical engineering Associate Professor Timothy Hight and electrical engineering Professor Timothy Healy, who served as faculty advisors; and Associate Professor Mark Aschheim, who built on the foundational work done by student Mark Folgner ’05 in developing bamboo I-beams. The team had assistance from Associate Professor of Religious Studies James Reites, S.J.—a.k.a. “Papa Reites”—who did construction work and studied engineering before joining the Jesuits. Some students’ parents would be drafted as well.
Students on the team agreed almost to a person that, going in, they had the engineering chops to make the top ten, maybe even the top five in the competition. “I don’t think that anyone on the team thought of themselves as underdogs,” says communications director Meghan Mooney.
The house had to be finished in September. In the last couple of weeks, the pace of construction was exhausting. Students were drilling steel and wrestling with temperamental switches and prepping for tours late into the night. But then it was done: They’d designed an attractive, efficient home powered entirely by the sun. They’d built it with their own hands, then they’d taken the blessed thing apart and watched with delight as it was lifted by crane and set down onto a flatbed trailer for the journey to D.C. The house was bolted down and the truck slowly pulled out, carrying the hopes and dreams of the team with it. First stop: a little knoll just outside Buck Shaw Stadium—that, as the truck drove over it, forced the weight of the entire 50,000-pound house onto one axle. The wheels folded out at a crazy angle.
The manufacturer had another of the custom-length axles available—in Sacramento. So Papa Reites and Alberto Fonts—a senior electrical engineering major whose brother, Agustin, was in charge of transport logistics—hopped in a truck borrowed from the SCU facilities department and headed off for the state capital. The new axle was in place a little after midnight, and the house was ready to roll only 24 hours behind schedule. Team members flew on to D.C. to prepare for its arrival.
Then came the call from Gretna, Nebraska, just west of Omaha. The truck had broken an axle, bent a second. The Fonts brothers, along with engineering student Ray Lam, worked the phone lines and finally found a Nebraska shop with an axle of the right diameter but wrong length. So they found a welder who could cut the axle and extend it out. To make up for lost time, Bickford pleaded with every state department of transportation between Nebraska and D.C. to let the truck drive 24 hours a day. Pennsylvania officials took some special convincing. “In the end,” Bickford says, “we resolved that the house could go through their state at night if, and I quote, ‘It’s lit up like a Christmas tree.’”
The team cast the delay in the best possible light. After all, the setbacks brought even more attention to the team and made the underdog story even more convincing. That, and the team was actually ahead of the game when it came to building its house. Some other teams hadn’t even put their houses together before shipping them to Washington.
While they waited for the house, the SCU team busied itself with site preparation; two additional trucks had arrived on time, carrying the deck and other equipment. They tested their PV cells and thermal collector. In a spirit of camaraderie, some of their competitors came over and offered to help with construction when the house arrived.
When it did finally arrive on Oct. 5, it was with a grand entrance: escort cars with flashing yellow lights spinning in the darkness, and the truck rumbling up the gravel drive behind them. Team members cheered and hugged one another and raced out to meet the truck. Then they went to work putting it in place. By 3 a.m. Saturday, the house was securely resting on the Mall. True to their word, the Santa Clara team was one of the first to pass inspections—despite starting three days late.
Let the games begin
The competition officially opened Oct. 12. With a military color guard on hand, Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman cut the ribbon. Riders on the D.C. Metro passed signs announcing, “Take your sun to work day.” A stone’s throw from the Smithsonian Castle—that temple of scientific achievement—the solar village was arrayed along Decathlete Way. The teams basked in the October warmth and the realization that these were homes that could be built here and now.
As part of the Decathlon, teams also had to use electricity generated by their house to power an electric vehicle. Santa Clara devised tactics to maximize kilometers per watt: Maintain a speed of 14 mph; use hand signals instead of flashers; and, if at all possible, don’t stop. When Mooney was riding shotgun, she urged Bickford not to slow down for rollerbladers and bikers. “They’re going to be fine,” she told him. But when a family of ducks crossed in front, Bickford hit the brakes.
On Monday, Oct. 15, though—after the bad news in the architecture competition—another problem arose. Somehow the car had been left unplugged. Bickford and Hight took the car out for the day’s spin around West Potomac Park. And in mid-course, the battery ran out of juice. They pushed the car to the side of the path. Another electric car pulled up, driven by a couple of students from Carnegie Mellon.
“What school are you guys from?” they asked.
“Santa Clara,” Bickford said.
“Ha, go figure.”
But Santa Clara didn’t throw in the towel—except literally, because washing and drying a dozen towels was part of the contest for appliances powered by the house’s solar system. Other tests involved the dishwasher, boiling water on the stove, and filling a vessel with hot water from the shower. Other teams had trouble coaxing hot water out of their systems, but Santa Clara nailed it. That, at least, felt good. After all, who’d want to live in a solar-powered home if it meant you couldn’t have a hot shower?
Who are these guys?
At 10 a.m. on Tuesday came the announcement for scores in communication. Teams were rated on Web sites and tours. Second place: Santa Clara, just behind the University of Maryland—which had a distinct home field advantage; its campus is a stop on the D.C. Metro.
The communication score catapulted Santa Clara to 13th overall. The scores Tuesday morning offered a measure of poetic justice, too; Carnegie Mellon took last.
Wednesday morning brought scores for lighting. Santa Clara placed in the top 10. Thursday morning, in the rankings for market viability, Santa Clara took sixth. They edged up to ninth place overall. And they knew that they had energy balance locked up: They had fewer solar panels than other top competitors, but they also used the least power. Other teams weren’t maintaining the necessary energy balance day and night. Factoring in how that contest was proceeding, the team was secure in seventh place overall, just one point out of sixth.
Someone suggested they make salmon sashimi. But would the students from Texas A&M, Madrid, and Puerto Rico like that? Instead, Ryan Leary was drafted to pan fry the salmon. On the side: instant mashed potatoes with plenty of butter.
It was a balmy evening on the Mall, perfect for appetizers on the back patio, dinner on the front deck. The party was a hit.
Later that evening, Bickford and Kimyacioglu were in the lobby of the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel when Solar Decathlon director Richard King spotted them.
“All right! Santa Clara,” King called. “Top ten!”
“Just wait,” Bickford said. “Tomorrow, top five. Maybe top three.”
“Okay, big guy,” King said. “You got to go out there and perform tomorrow.”
Ryan Leary and Frank Altamura were in the scoring tent the next morning, watching their team climb the charts and noticing the incredulity on faces around them. “Santa Clara…they weren’t even in the competition,” Leary says. “Their house was late. Their truck broke down. Their car broke down. You know, who are these guys?”
Friday: a new reality
The week-long contests covered appliances, comfort zone, energy balance, hot water, and “getting around” in the electric car. Somehow, despite the first day’s mishap with the car, Santa Clara took second in getting around. As the scores were posted on Friday morning, Santa Clara stepped into the top four, just a few points behind Penn State. The scores
for energy balance came in: Santa Clara tied for first in the contest. Now they were in the top three! But the results from engineering were still to come. For those, everyone had to wait until the awards ceremony at 2 p.m.
The pavilion was packed with officials and team members and spectators. Richard King announced the top three teams in engineering. Alas, Santa Clara was not among them.
Later, SCU would find out it took tenth in engineering—a respectable showing. Right now, though, it was time to announce the final rankings overall.
Secretary Bodman stood at the podium. He praised the innovations of the competition, including the bamboo I-beam technology developed at Santa Clara. And then he announced the top three teams.
He spoke of a team who set out to design a house that was functional, elegant, and innovative. “Their house almost didn’t make it to the Decathlon”—(cheers, applause)—“but we are very glad they did. Third place, the Cinderella team from California…”
The crowd went wild. Hugs, smiles, photos with the secretary of energy. Then Bickford took the microphone.
“Not too bad for the team that took 21st out of the 20 teams in the beginning!” he said. He told the crowd that walking across the Mall that morning he’d overheard a man tell his preschool-aged son, “‘The most important thing to do in a competition is not to win, but to succeed.’ There are 20 teams, 20 houses out there,” Bickford said, “that are living proof and testament to the fact that not only can college students succeed in one of the biggest challenges of our time, but that this is a new reality.”
More than 200,000 people came in person to see what the best and the brightest were offering as the new reality—the beginning of what King has called the Solar Century. It’s a century in which, Bickford says confidently, solar will soon be cheaper than coal. As for the prize-winners, second place went to the University of Maryland and first to a house from Germany, designed by a team from the Technische Universität Darmstadt.
Within days, the houses were taken apart and shipped home. Even before the houses departed, the Department of Energy posted a call for proposals for the 2009 Solar Decathlon. And a memorandum of understanding was signed between U.S. officials and representatives from Spain, launching a European Solar Decathlon in 2010.
The Ripple Home took a little longer than expected to make it back to the Mission campus. The trailer carrying it broke three axles in Nebraska. But the house made it over the Sierra before the winter snows. The most well-traveled structure on campus, it will be sited next to the Bannan Engineering Building and serve as a model for green living.
In January, the Department of Energy announced the teams who would be competing in the next Solar Decathlon. Naturally, among them was a team from Santa Clara. There are some lessons learned that will be passed along to the new team. (For starters, get a sturdier trailer!) They’ll also take another factor into account: In 2009, nobody will make the mistake of thinking that Santa Clara’s team is the underdog.
Steven Boyd Saum is managing editor for Santa Clara Magazine. Heidi Williams, Alicia K. Gonzales, and Deepa Arora contributed to this report.
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