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CU students have twice won the Solar Decathlon. Can they make it a three-peat?

From the back yard of the house, Sean Hauze and Adam Rude can see the Washington Monument and the Capitol, but the thrill of that view wore off long ago. The University of Colorado students have been in Washington, D.C., for well over a week, scrambling with a dozen teammates to finish their entry in the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon. Now, as they look around, eyes red from another all-nighter, they worry that their house seems unfinished compared to its nineteen neighbors on the National Mall.

Planters framing the deck have yet to be painted. While other universities had their agriculture and horticulture departments create elaborate landscapes and gardens, the CU house only has what look like a few Charlie Brown Christmas trees in the otherwise bare planters. Mulch bags, tarps and extension cords are scattered on the deck, along with a pile of blankets where one student took a 4 a.m. catnap.

"We're the scrappy contender," Hauze says.

Toby Lewis managed the construction of CU's Solar Decathlon house.
ANTHONY CAMERA
Toby Lewis managed the construction of CU's Solar Decathlon house.
Chad Corbin stepped up to lead the team.
Anthony camera
Chad Corbin stepped up to lead the team.

Details

To see a slide show of the CU house and some of the other architectural and solar-powered wonders from the Solar Decathalon, click here.

Inside, the mechanical system — including heating, cooling and hot water — isn't working, and the electrical work isn't finished. Earlier this morning, Jack Baum, the team electrician, left for a few hours' sleep, and then the bedroom circuit tripped and somebody flipped the breaker powering the whole house, shutting off the inverters that charge the batteries with solar power. Ceiling panels are hanging down; doorknobs are missing. The side door sticks so bad that it's become a fire hazard. Half a dozen inspections have yet to be passed, including a basic safety inspection required before the public tours begin at 11 a.m. October 12 — three hours from now. "Yeah, we're definitely the scrappy contender," Hauze says again.

Still, the students are supposed to be at the decathlon's opening ceremony by 9 a.m., so at 8:45, they run to their hotel to shower and scare up clean-looking jeans to go with their collared CU shirts. Like the rest of their team, Hauze and Rude show up late, and reluctantly — the house is not ready. But at the ceremony, no one says anything about the CU team being scrappy. In fact, its status as reigning champion of the two previous Solar Decathlons and its quest for a three-peat are mentioned in the introduction, and DOE Secretary Samuel Bodman notes the presence of Jeff Lyng, CU's 2005 project manager, who's now working with Governor Bill Ritter's Energy Office. After a photo-op and ribbon-cutting, visitors are invited to tour the houses, which Bodman calls "working laboratories of innovation."

SolarHouse.jpg Click here to see a slide show from the Solar Decathalon.

The Solar Decathlon has many goals, but its primary purpose is a public demonstration. As such, it's set up on one the most heavily trafficked corners of the National Mall, just across the street from the Washington Monument and bordered by the Smithsonian Castle and the National Museum of Natural History. The Metro stop for tourists visiting these sites lets out just paces from the Solar Village, and for weeks, signage has been plastered all over the city. There are two rows of ten houses each facing south. CU has one of the most prominent lots — on the corner of the only two walkways, at the heart of the Village.

By the time the CU students break free from the crowd and get back to their house, a couple of people are already inside. The team kicks them out, politely, and gets back to work: painting, cleaning, wiring. Tensions are high, and a disagreement between an architect and an engineer almost escalates into a fight, as shouts of "Just walk away! We need to get done! Don't rile each other up!" reach the ears of passing tourists.

Finally, at 12:15 — an hour and fifteen minutes after tours were supposed to start — Mike Brandemuehl, the team's faculty advisor, says enough is enough. "We're opening the house in one minute," he commands. "As soon as you get all this stuff out of here. It's more important to get people in here than to clean the floors."


Back in the 1970s, Mike Brandemuehl was an applied math: engineering and physics undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. Home for Christmas one year, helping his dad milk cows on the family farm, he heard something on the radio about solar energy. His dad said he thought they should take more advantage of solar power, that it was something worthwhile, and that got Brandemuehl thinking. UW had a solar lab, and the next week, he got a job there as a work-study student, working alongside some of the scientists who would become legends in the field. Brandemuehl stayed for a master's, then a Ph.D. But in 1981, the future started looking dim for the solar industry, including the Golden-based Solar Energy Research Institute, now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "Reagan had already been elected, and NREL was laying people off faster than they could tell them," he remembers. "And all those solar-energy people became energy-efficiency people."

After working in the private sector for years, Brandemuehl decided to return to academia and became a professor in the Building Systems Program (BSP) within CU's Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, where he worked closely with NREL. That's how in 2000 he heard that the DOE planned to announce a competition for student teams to design, build and operate solar houses. Seven CU engineering students signed on, the architecture college joined in, and the team grew to seventeen members. In 2002, CU took its first house to the National Mall. "Nobody even knew if this was going to work," Brandemuehl recalls. "There were only fourteen teams that I think even submitted proposals. There was a novelty to it, and I certainly got the sense from the DOE people that there was some real trepidation about whether it was going to be successful, whether the teams were going to show up with interesting designs, whether systems were going to work, whether it would be a good demonstration — and I think it really was. One of the things that impressed everyone in 2002 was just how many people showed up. There were 125,000 people who came to the Mall, and I think that really surprised the organizers."

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