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Toby Lewis managed the construction of CU's Solar Decathlon house.
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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.

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."

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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."

The buildings were pretty simple that year, both in architecture and systems. But CU's stood out as the winner.

Back in Colorado, the victory helped boost the enrollment of the BSP program from an incoming class of six in 2002 to 25 in 2003. "There were some very good students suddenly showing up, and they came for the Solar Decathlon," Brandemuehl says. "It seemed obvious that we should do it again."

And CU students agreed, approving a four-year, 45-cent per student per semester fee earmarked for the Solar Decathlon in the spring of 2005. But after a second victory that fall, the architecture school said it would not participate in the next contest. "The main reason is the Solar Decathlon is a volunteer project. It's not something that CU has funds for," says Julee Herdt, the architecture faculty advisor for the 2002 and 2005 teams. "So that means every time it rolls around, it falls on the shoulders of a faculty advisor and group of students to fundraise for the project." And in 2005, when CU was competing against $2 million projects from schools with large donors and endowments, the architecture school ended up shouldering most of the financial burden. "We're still recouping those funds," Herdt says. "CU's a nonprofit, and it means we have to make up the money we use. We just financially couldn't afford to do this one. I had to take a rest, and the college's finances had to take a rest."

That left the engineering college, and Brandemuehl specifically, to take the lead. "It seemed pretty rude to go back and say to the students, 'Yeah, we'll take your money, but we won't actually do a solar decathlon,'" Brandemuehl recalls. "I hate to say I did it because nobody else would, but I'm sort of the obvious person to keep on doing this."

But even he couldn't commit beyond the 2007 house. The project was a huge investment that took time not just from his family, but from his career. "Professionally, it's probably hurt me," he admits. "It certainly distracted me from what a professor at a research university should be doing, but it's been awfully satisfying."

Knowing this third decathlon would be his last, Brandemuehl began thinking about what might give the competition lasting value. Obviously, the experience had been great for his students, who without exception went on to renewable-energy careers. But so far, no new engineering technology had emerged from the contests; all the houses used standard systems. He decided that would change in 2007. "We came into it knowing we wanted to push the envelope much more than we had in the past on the mechanical side of things," he says.

And the same went for the architecture. Brandemuehl came up with the idea of designing a 2,100-square-foot house around the 700-square-foot competition house. "I think there was a recognition that we got lucky last time and that it was obvious that the architecture was getting dramatically more sophisticated," he says. "Our college of architecture and planning wasn't even on board. No studios, no elective classes, no faculty who were going to work with us. If we were going to compete, we were going to have to think outside the box architecturally. It served multiple purposes. It was more relevant to the building industry and public, and selfishly, it might also give us license to not achieve the same architectural elegance that really is showing up here on the Mall."


 

Mark Cruz came straight to the 2007 team from the 2005 competition, despite having postponed his graduation and run out of money during the last contest. An architecture student who already had an associate's degree in construction management, his experience was critical to the 2005 team. The same would prove true for the 2007 team, since the architecture school's pull-out put all the design responsibility on a small group of dedicated, and overworked, students. "I'd like to see us portrayed as the team that overcame a lot of bureaucratic negligence," Cruz says one night in D.C., into his third hour of painting planter boxes.

With no architecture faculty to guide the project, Brandemuehl asked Mark Sofield, the designer for Prospect in Longmont, to advise the team. "It's a mistake," Sofield says of the architecture school's decision not to join in. "This is the most happening thing in architecture education right now."

But perhaps because of the snub, the smaller team turned out very strong and cohesive, even though its members shared little other than type-A personalities, egos and pride. "They really pulled it together on the design and put aside their personal biases," Sofield says. "The kids turned themselves inside out this week and that final week before the drawings were submitted. It was an inhuman amount of work."

Rude, one of the five designers, says the big idea fueling that work called for condensing the mechanical systems — plumbing, electric, HVAC, kitchen and bath — into a prefabricated core. And when another student suggested that the core could be a shipping container, the design really began to take shape. The envelope-pushing notion was that this core — containing all of a home's complex systems — could be mass-produced in a factory and easily delivered to any site, where a unique building envelope could then be built around it. "One of the things I'm most proud of in the design is the integration of different systems to a degree that's pretty rare and pretty hard to achieve in the working world of architecture," Sofield says.

Like Cruz, Jon Previtali was a member of the 2005 team. After graduating from Stanford University with a civil engineering degree, he'd gone into the Internet world. But after the dotcom bust, he was intrigued enough by CU's BSP solar and energy-efficiency curriculum to sign on for graduate school. After he heard about the Solar Decathlon, he came to Boulder eight months early to start working on the project. But he was turned off by the rigid management of the 2005 team, which actually fired volunteers, and helped establish a Noam Chomsky model of consensus-building for the 2007 team, which would later create its own problems — like a lack of organization.

Previtali and Justin Spencer were the team's first, unofficial leaders. Spencer, a Princeton mechanical engineering graduate, had enrolled at CU in August 2005 partly for the Solar Decathlon, but mostly for BSP. Raised in an off-grid house in Old Town, Maine, Spencer had been thinking about energy for a long time. He had a lot of ideas about thermal storage, and they inspired the mechanical system for the 2007 house, appropriately named Justin's Dream.

The fundamental dream was to capture and move heat — from the back of the refrigerator, down a drain, anywhere heat in air or water was coming in or out of the house. "I wanted this concept of storage," Spencer recalls. "We're so used to everything being on demand, right now. I think it's very important to think about storage." He did much of the initial modeling, and what emerged was a passive heating and cooling system that would use a heat pump and 200-gallon hot- and cold-water storage tanks to manage energy transfers. When the house needed to be cooled, cold water would be pumped to "heat exchangers" — copper pipes with fans above them blowing low-velocity air. When the house needed heat, hot water would flow through the pipes. Everything would be connected to pipes, or solar thermal collectors, on the back of the roof's PV panels so that heat could be collected during the day and released at night. The fluid in the tanks would actually be an antifreeze solution, but encapsulated ice cubes in the cold tank would help keep the temperature at 32 degrees. In order for the house to know how much heat it should store or expend on any given day, an intelligent control system would use factors like historical weather patterns to make those calls.

But after their initial planning, Previtali and Spencer realized they needed someone else to take the reins. Previtali was graduating and moving back to California; Spencer was doing research at NREL. Thirty people were active with the team, but few were getting credit or other compensation, and they were reluctant to take on the brunt of the responsibility. Then, in the summer of 2006, when Spencer was giving a tour of the 2005 house, a student came up and asked if he could get involved. "By all means, come to a meeting," Spencer said.

 

By January, Chad Corbin was the project manager. A Cornell grad, he'd come to CU after working in the real world for seven years. He had a graduate research assistant position at NREL and wanted to be a part of the solar-house project; he wound up leading it. "It became obvious that we needed somebody taking responsibility, just making sure things got done," he says. "I was nominated." As the Solar Decathlon took over his life, he gave up the NREL slot. And while other teammates claimed not to care about winning a third time, Corbin made no such statements. "I definitely feel a lot of pressure — not just on myself, because I put a lot of pressure on myself anyway, but because the team has won twice in a row," he said back in May. "It's definitely something to live up to, and I'd like to be able to sit here and say however we do, it's a victory. But there's some part of me that doesn't exactly feel that way. Maybe that's why I'm so freaked out."

Wanting to do well wasn't the only reason Corbin was freaked out. From the moment he took on his leadership role, money was a constant worry for a team that needed $600,000 to build and move the house it had designed. The only guaranteed funds coming in were $100,000 from DOE and $14,000 from students each semester; the team needed to raise everything else. But in March, Xcel Energy agreed to purchase the finished house for $200,000. And a lot of companies stepped up with products and other donations, including the site where McStain Neighborhoods let the team build. Still, there was a shortfall. "Designing and building a house was hard enough, but when you're trying to go out and scrimp money to make it happen, you just don't have the time," Corbin says. "It's an additional burden we all have to take on to try to get products donated and private donors to give us money. That's the only way this project could happen. We lost a lot of time, and it contributed to delays, just not having those funds."

When construction finally began this summer — two months later than Corbin had wanted — he started spending sixty, eighty, a hundred hours a week not just managing the project, but doing actual construction that he feared wouldn't get done in time otherwise. It didn't help that in August, work stopped for a week when the team realized it was spending more money than was coming in. All purchasing was halted, and the team didn't have the materials to continue. When Xcel promised another $100,000 toward the house, construction resumed.

Aside from a small construction crew hired by the team, Corbin, Toby Lewis and Jack Baum were the constants on site.

Lewis was back at CU for a master's degree in civil engineering, with an emphasis in construction management, when she got involved with the Solar Decathlon this past spring. She hadn't even been to a construction-management class, or on a construction site, when she was named the project's construction manager, and she had just weeks to familiarize herself with the design and the team dynamics before she was barking orders. "It's been really fun and entertaining to be a woman directing subcontractors," she says. "These old-timer roofers and truck drivers, they all get a kick out of it. This whole project is pretty unusual as is. We had some rough welders come to modify the garage. They got a kick out of talking about my motorcycle. I like surprising people, and this role has been a really good way to do that."

An electrician for six years, Baum had quit the trades and enrolled at CU in hopes of becoming an architect. "I wanted to have a complete education on everything within building," he says. "So I figured I had my construction education, and now I want to get an engineering education. Then I want to get an architecture education." For Baum, the Solar Decathlon was a dream project because he got to take part in both the design and the actual building. For the rest of the team, Baum was a perfect fit because not only could he wire the house and drive a forklift, but he owned his own tool belt; he'd never been on a site where nobody had tools and everybody had a laptop. Lewis's only gripe with Baum was that he wouldn't let her bring in a contractor to help with the electrical installation. "That was my problem," he says. "I didn't want to have an electrician. I should have realized that I was not enough. I just kind of take things over and don't let anybody else in on them, and that's dangerous, because you have to sleep and eat occasionally."

 

There wasn't a lot of time for sleeping and eating once construction was really under way. Looking at a team photo taken with the shipping container core, Baum remembers what was going through their minds: "This was not a group of people like, 'Yes, we're starting out to conquer the world.' This was a group that was like, 'We finally got our supplies to try and conquer the world. I wonder if we'll have enough time.'"

The night before the house was to be pulled apart and loaded onto trailers for the trip to D.C., structural engineer Kari Rogne was still trying to figure out how to make that happen. She ultimately attached large bolts to the sides of the loft on top of the house so that a crane could pick it up. "I didn't think about how to lift the house when I was designing the structure, so it was last-minute," she says. "I didn't know if it was going to work. I had no clue."

The bolts bent a little, but they held.

In the mad rush to get the house across the country, there wasn't enough time to test Justin's Dream.

James McNeill likes to say that Justin's Dream became his nightmare. Inspired by the first two Solar Decathlon wins, he came to CU for grad school after already having worked for two years as a design engineer on electrical, plumbing, mechanical and HVAC systems. Spencer had the idea, "and I ended up having to get it to work," McNeill says. "It's been a bit more of a challenge than he even wants to realize."

McNeill had hoped to test the heating and cooling system before the house left for D.C. When that didn't happen, he tried to troubleshoot over the phone during the nine days before he was to join the rest of the team. All told, about 25 students went to D.C. during the two weeks of construction and the week of the competition, with about fifteen there at any given time. "I had been convinced before I got here things were working pretty well," McNeill says, "and I got here and looked at it and said, 'No, things are not right. Something's really wrong.'"

McNeill is constantly commenting on how something "feels." It goes back to how he views his job; he wants to make people feel comfortable in the space he's helped create. And he did not feel comfortable when he got to the house the night before the opening ceremony. He'd flown in at eleven and taken the Metro straight to the Mall, where he saw almost immediately that the heating and cooling system had been piped incorrectly. In all the commotion, no one had checked to make sure the plumber followed the drawings. He stayed at the house all night and through the next day, dozing off on the couch in the last minutes before the first impound on Friday, October 12 — a twelve-hour period when students are forced to leave their houses and finally get some sleep.


On October 13, the Mall is packed until the house tours end at 5 p.m. At 5:30, with tourists still lingering around the houses, the students with work to do can't wait any longer. They have to get all the systems up and running by 7 p.m. — when another impound starts — or risk not passing inspections in the morning and being eliminated from much of the contest. The CU team bursts into the house with ladders and tools and heads to the mechanical closet and "fat wall," where all the controls are on display, if not actually working.

McNeill is trying to figure out why he can't get the heat pump to make hot water. "Are you positive I don't need to find a backup?" Previtali asks. The house's large solar array — big enough to power the eventual 2,100-square-foot house — is making plenty of electricity to power an electric hot-water heater, he says, and he wants to buy one in case they can't get the thermal system's pump to work. Making hot water is a big part of the contest, worth 100 points.

"No, I'm not positive," Spencer tells him.

 

As teammates huddle in front of the engineering closet, veteran Jeff Lyng hovers over their shoulder. "You have to be inspected at 7 a.m. tomorrow?" he asks Spencer, who isn't sure. "Will you be penalized for installing the hot water tank?" Spencer isn't sure about that, either.

To fix whatever's wrong, they need to access hard-to-reach wires and pipes inside the closet, and they can't get the side wall to slide out even after they take down a ceiling panel to make room. "This competition's worth more than a piece of wood," Lyng says. "Just cut it out of there."

Baum does just that, grabbing a power saw and slicing a big, crooked corner that will later make architects cringe. "That's what I'm talking about," Lyng says.

While one student rewires the heat pump, McNeill's father, who's dropped by to visit, takes a wrench to the pipes, trying to stop any leaks. The incorrect piping has somehow affected the heating and cooling. The team should still be able to make hot water by having the heat pump send water directly to the hot water tank, but it's not working and McNeill can't figure out why.

Corbin calls out a warning: They have to be out of the house in thirty minutes.

Brandemuehl appears for an update.

The heat pump's shorting, Spencer tells him.

The students fill their advisor in on the possibility of a backup electric water heater, and he shakes his head: "I would prefer to get the heat pump working."

What was supposed to be an elaborate control system is now just a couple of guys standing by the fat wall flipping switches. Spencer remembers two wires he had disconnected, and reconnects them.

Six minutes!

"Okay. Ready? Give it a shot. Turn on 6."

"It's not on, turn on 22."

"Can you turn on 6 again?"

No, because a fuse has blown.

They scramble to find a volt meter that will tell them which wire has too high a voltage and is causing the short. But it's too late.

One minute, Corbin calls out.

"Everybody out!" Brandemuehl says. "Let's go. We're done."

Outside the house, most of the team members stand in a circle in the dark and discuss strategy. If they decide on a hot-water backup, Brandemuehl will go to Home Depot — though he clearly wants the students to get the system they designed working. And that's what they decide to do. They'll meet tonight to go over drawings and come up with a plan. Baum sits away from the rest, hanging his head. He has to return to Colorado, and he hasn't accomplished what he came to do. The house hasn't yet passed electrical inspections.

The next morning, students are back at both the fat wall, trying to determine why fuses keep blowing, and the mechanical closet, trying to figure out why water won't heat. McNeill thinks there's too much air in the pipes and is using a hose to add water to push air out. But because the controls aren't working, the only way he can determine the temperature of the water and the amount of the flow is to feel the pipes. "We're getting some air venting," he says.

"Okay, there's heat."

Spencer is smiling and giving a thumbs-up sign, like they've finally figured it out — and then he looks over at the hot tank: "Hey, how come there's water droplets here?"

Just as he asks that, water pours over the top of the hot tank and into the kitchen. McNeill has added a little too much water to the system.

While they dry the spill, McNeill fiddles with valves, determining which he must turn to stop water from flowing to the hot tank. He picks two, but doesn't seem that confident in his choice.

Corbin is standing on the ladder with his hand in the tank so he can feel if the water rises again. He marvels at how his hand is in water but not wet because of the tank's nanogel insulation.

Tom Meyers, the contest superintendent, is due any minute for their inspection.

"Is this going to be enough?" McNeill asks. "We got a guy with his hand in the tank, and we might be spilling water that's 150 to 200 degrees on people."

There's a crackling sound as the heat pump is turned on again.

"Something doesn't seem right here. Can we shut it off?" McNeill calls out.

A middle-school class shows up with a camera crew at their scheduled time to tour the house, and Corbin decides to turn them away.

They flip on the heat pump again. More crackling.

"What is that?" McNeill wonders aloud.

"Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?" Brandemuehl asks, bouncing like a child.

They decide to adjust the flow rate, then turn the heat pump on and off again, and again. Everyone is touching pipes to try to guess their temperature and flow. McNeill realizes that the pipes on the cold side of the system are "cold cold" — but not in the right places.

 

"Oh! Did we freeze the evaporator?" Spencer asks.

Just then, Meyers shows up and makes a bad joke about how many mechanical operators it takes to run CU's system. "We think we might have iced the evaporator. We basically need this to thaw," Brandemuehl says. "So, as far as the opportunity to participate in the competition this week, if you leave here and we have not passed inspections, we cannot heat water or heat the house?"

"No, that's not correct," Meyers says. "What I'm going to do is give the organizers my final punch list. I'm going to tell them, 'Hey, the majority of the system looks great but wasn't operable. I suggest you review the modifications.'"

With just thirty minutes until tours must start, they leave the system to thaw and try to clean up. Brandemuehl and Corbin start a conversation that will continue well into the evening about which pipes need to be cut and rerouted to get the heating and cooling system up and running. On his way out, Brandemuehl notices Lyng sweeping the kitchen floor and takes a picture.

As soon as public tours end at 5 p.m., McNeill is back in front of the mechanical closet with a hose, filling the system with water in order to push out air. After many rounds of "Feel this one" and "Feel that," someone calls, "We've got warm water over here!" Brandemuehl decides they've been successful. McNeill doesn't look too sure. Still, he clears out with everyone else so that Corbin can fix the piping without distraction.

Now Corbin, who's been running in place outside to pump himself up, looks at the drawings and pipes one more time with Brandemuehl. He then gets to work, cutting and soldering around a tangle of wires. Tonight's impound starts at 10 p.m., and when the team returns a little before that, Corbin finishes without a word. Then, as he's cleaning up his tools, he says softly, "Just turn it on."

They decide to try the hot water first. Everyone gathers around the kitchen sink with their fingers in the stream.

"It's getting warm!"

Success.

With just a few minutes left, they'll have to wait until the morning — when they'll have only an hour before the temperature and hot-water tests — to try the heating and cooling. "I love our sophisticated control system," McNeill says. "Dave standing by the controls, Chad with his hand in the tank, and I'll be the relay. I'll yell out and smack Dave in the head when he needs to turn something off."


The ten contests in the Solar Decathlon are divided between subjective categories decided by juries and objective categories for which results can be measured. On Monday, October 15, the games really begin when everything is monitored: temperature, lighting, hot water, energy into and out of the batteries of their off-grid homes, efficiency of such tasks as dishwashing and clothes-drying, and mileage on the electric car that each team is given and must charge with energy from its house. Those measurements, and how they affect the teams' rankings, are updated every fifteen minutes and put on a spreadsheet for all to see. On Monday, there's also the first awards ceremony for a juried competition: architecture.

"I'm so anxious," Sofield says as people start gathering around the podium set up close to CU's front door. "It's not for me. I'm anxious for everybody else."

CU's architects arrive first, and then the rest of the team arrives to show support. Corbin hugs each of the designers as a juror takes the mike and begins talking about beauty and innovation and making the world a better place. As the juror lists notable aspects of some projects, the CU students speculate that it's a good sign he hasn't mentioned them. Maybe he's saving the best for last.

As the juror is about to name the winners, the mike goes out.

Six DOE representatives assess the situation while the students groan. A television crew offers a spare mike, but it goes out, too. After five very long minutes, a DOE staffer locates the extension cord that's apparently needed to make the system work.

The winners are finally announced, beauty-pageant style. Third place: Universidad Politécnica de Madrid. Second place: University of Maryland. First place: Technische Universitat Darmstadt, whose house is across the walkway from CU's. Even though they're fierce competitors, with solar cells on every east-, west- and south-facing slot of the mechanical oak louvers surrounding their house, the German students — always smoking, dressed in black, incredibly cheerful — are hard for the Coloradans not to like.

 

All of the non-winning teams head to the leaderboard and wait while the schools' names are placed in order of their ranking, from top to bottom. After watching seven names go up that aren't University of Colorado, Lewis walks away. After nine, Rude walks away. CU finally scores tenth in architecture. The designers are devastated.

Before he heads back to Colorado, Sofield sits for a while on a bench on the Mall, where he has a clear view of the CU house. The shipping-container core is painted a bright orange and its envelope a complementary shade of green. There's a sloped roof made up of sleek black solar panels, with the loft just underneath, above the bedroom. Unlike many of the houses that look like a single box, the CU floor plan has distinct rooms: a bedroom off the back, a spacious bathroom, a kitchen separated from the living room by a bar area and the copper-pipe heat exchangers framing the corner. Those exchangers, the hot and cold tanks, mechanical closet and fat wall are all integrated into the design.

Looking at the house, Sofield sees the qualities he values in a living space, the qualities he's encouraged the students to emphasize: "livability and composition and not modesty, but a kind of quietness." He wonders if the jury appreciates those same qualities. "I think they were focused on shiny things," he says. "The German house is exquisite — not the spatial experience, which is not that nice, but the detail. I want to get the team together and explain this, that it doesn't mean we should have done things that we didn't do. I want them to understand that the glossy, shiny stuff is not the important part to being an architect."

The architecture judging is over, but there's more work to be done. Tours are still coming through the house. They can finally make hot water, but McNeill doesn't trust the mechanical system, and he keeps adding water every time he tries to use it, in an attempt to get the air out. (Later, he will realize that the separators he thinks are releasing air from the pipes are actually sucking air in.)

That evening, a small group huddles over their laptops on the house's back deck, lit by the glow of the Mall and its temporary solar village. They look at the day's spreadsheets and graphs and strategize such tactics as how much power they should use or store. Zeke Yewdall, a member of the 2002 team, is on hand to help. "I spent twenty hours a week checking spreadsheets during the past two decathlons, even when I was not involved," he says. "That's what geeks do."

When the spreadsheets are updated to include the day's driving — a category in which CU has always excelled, because the team drives non-stop to gain the most miles possible — the school's overall rank jumps to fifth. They go back to the hotel feeling good about their standings.

But Tuesday gets off to a bad start. Cruz, still sour over the architecture awards, is waiting for the award in communications, the only individual contest that CU won in both previous decathlons. "Look, there was a huge crowd for architecture and like three nerds for communications," he says. He's nervous about the number of teams with nice signage and audio tours and podcasts, and as it turns out, he's right to worry. CU doesn't place in the top three, and its rank on the leaderboard drops to eighth.

McNeill, who woke up late, has gone straight to the house convinced that something isn't right. The hot water tank is overflowing, and that familiar crackling sound has McNeill and Spencer worried that the evaporator is frozen again. Previtali calls everyone outside. "We were just delivered a large blow," he says. "Eighteenth in communications."

McNeill walks back inside, takes hold of a pipe and rests his head in the curve of his arm. "I'm worried about everything," he says.

They fail their hot-water tests that morning, and the inverters that charge the batteries with solar power shut down during the sunniest parts of the day. It's a problem that's come up before, but the team thought it had been fixed.

By Wednesday, when CU is snubbed at yet another ceremony, this one for lighting, Previtali's usually upbeat countenance has turned down. "Everybody should read Lord of the Flies before being on one of these teams," he says. Although he designed the power system, he feels left out of the troubleshooting. No one told him that the inverters were shutting off, and he thinks he could have fixed the problem sooner. He doesn't agree with the decision to forgo an electric hot-water heater, since the team's lost points there. And he's still smarting over the poor showing in communications — an area he considers one of his strengths. "The complexity of the house and the nature of the organization has caused us to spend less time on ancillary requirements, like websites and tours," he says. "It's one of those things we almost took for granted that we would do well on. I think the moral of the story is the competition has become a lot more competitive, and you can't rely on a small band of people who may or may not take the project seriously."

 

Thursday morning starts with another setback: CU does not get an award for market viability, even though the team was confident that its concept of a core within a larger house would do well. The Coloradans are already bitter when they get the judge's comments, which include a note that the economic-analysis columns of their spreadsheet were locked — which they weren't.

"Are you kidding?" one protests. "It's a fucking spreadsheet. They don't know how to use Excel?"

Those notes also say something about the drawings not matching, because CU had submitted drawings — and a cost analysis — not for the competition house, but for the surrounding 2,100-square-foot house, which they'd interpreted to be within the rules. The judges do not.

Brandemuehl brings these issues up with the contest administrators and manages to get the team some additional points when they see that the spreadsheet was not locked.

Corbin still feels robbed. "Stop a person on the deck here and ask them what size of a house they live in," he says. "I hate to say it. We should all be living in smaller houses, but the fact of the matter is, people live in 2,100-square-foot houses. You're not going to change that overnight. What you can do is change the way those houses are built so it's a lot more efficient."

"They just don't get us," Lewis says. "We're like the misunderstood child on the block."

"They did not get it at all," Corbin says.

He knows that the team's last shot to place in the top five is to impress the engineering jury. But it's a very long shot. "I'm afraid what's going to happen in engineering," he says, "is they're going to select the one that has a really safe, standard system — which is kind of funny, because the competition is about innovation and pushing the envelope on the way things are built so we have a different building-energy future."

The engineering jury comes knocking on CU's door Friday morning — just hours before both the engineering awards and overall decathlon winner will be announced. They may look scraggly with their unshaved faces and wrinkled shirts, but the team's engineers feel good about the system and how they explain it. For the past day and a half, they've been able to stand in front of the heat exchangers and feel a breeze of cold air, wrap their hands around an ice-cold copper pipe. A victory.

By now, everyone's gained a little perspective. Lewis realizes she should have organized the construction site better. Corbin thinks his time would have been better spent checking up on the mechanical systems and controls instead of doing construction work. There are hundreds of things that the team members wish they'd done differently. But they've also already accomplished the task that Brandemuehl challenged them to do: They've designed a truly innovative house that could set standards for the future. Sofield plans to introduce a version in Prospect. And Xcel Energy will be using the 2,100-square-foot house as a permanent public demonstration to teach consumers about the benefits of solar power. Everything the students haven't had time to master for the competition, they'll be able to perfect in the Xcel house.

"It's going to be really interesting to see how it runs in Colorado," Spencer says. "It could end up saving more energy than the original model, which was somewhat conservative. It's exciting that this is going to be seen by a bunch of people who are experts in the field. When I look at the energy world today, where things are going, I see so much wind power in Wyoming, and they're building giant transmission lines. And the only way you can have as much as 80 percent of your power coming from wind is with storage. This system is what utilities will probably need. We'll see where it goes next."

As Brandemuehl waits for his last solar decathlon awards ceremony, he says he was never so deluded as to think CU could win a third time. Since the thermal storage and core concepts could turn into ongoing projects for graduate students, he's already happy with the outcome. At the same time, he's begun to question the value of the competition as a whole. People are far more aware of the need for energy conservation than they were when the contest started; maybe the time is past for a sustainability contest that requires competing houses be moved to D.C. from across the country — or even farther away. "The workload is so heavily weighted toward the back end of building and operating and making it all work, and it's fair to question whether someone getting a master's or Ph.D. in engineering learns that much from swinging a hammer and running a cordless drill," he says. "The rationale for doing this, the public education, is maybe a little less compelling now.

 

"But I really am torn," he continues. "Students come into this expecting it's going to be valuable, and in many cases, this will be the highlight of their academic career. This will be what they remember. And at this point, here on the National Mall, 150,000 people have shown up, and the response of the public and industry is overwhelming. It's hard to not be satisfied that this is time well spent."

Still, there's no way one small department at CU can handle the project alone if the team is to do well, he says. It needs to be a statewide collaboration of multiple disciplines and schools, not unlike the Renewable Energy Collaboratory that CU is already doing with NREL, Colorado State University and the Colorado School of Mines. "This is getting to be of a scale where you really can't pull something like this off with just fifteen students," Brandemuehl says.

But being the underdog is fun, Baum insists, even as he moans over how much it will "suck" to be the first CU team to lose. Baum has a theory about his faculty advisor's intentions for this year's entry: Brandemuehl must have gotten bored with winning. "To learn, you really have to fail. And we had to do everything we could to make it as difficult as possible for us. This is not a competition to win. This was a competition to do everything we possibly could, almost trying to fail. And we did just that," Baum says, then laughs. "We're shooting for the moon. I don't know if we win or lose, but we let it all hang out. And you got to feel good about that."


At 2 p.m. on Friday, October 19, the CU team pushes its way into a crowded tent so hot and stuffy that it's hard to breathe. People are dripping with sweat, but that doesn't dampen their enthusiasm as the winning names are called.

After an engineering juror lists all the systems worth noting he gets down to the business at hand. "I'd like to talk about the third-best engineering entry today," he begins. "First of all, let me give you some of the details of this home before I tell you who the third-place winner is. This team used an effective use of a suite of automated tools that provided good simulation results that optimize the building envelope."

The Colorado students look at each other. This was something they tried to do but didn't exactly pull off.

"They also had good use of passive heating ventilation."

Check.

"They used effectively a water-source heat pump system that actually balanced the energy sources between the space heating, cooling and domestic hot water units."

Check.

"And probably most important, they had a very innovative photovoltaic roofing system..."

By now, they are sure. Corbin has a huge smile on his face as his teammates start patting him on the back.

"This is the University of Colorado."

Their little section erupts as if they've won the whole thing, and they all try to push their way to the front as the organizers remind them that just one team member should come up. As Corbin accepts the award, Brandemuehl looks like a very proud — and very relieved — father.

Technische Universitat Darmstadt wins the overall competition, and the CU team cheers for its neighbor. Before the dozens of Germans leave the stage with their trophy, Corbin is already headed for the leaderboard. CU doesn't make the top five, but he'll take seventh — for now.


Today, Corbin is back in Boulder, already talking to his teammates about the 2009 entry. But first they'll have to figure out what to do with the 2007 solar house. In the past, the champion entries have been displayed for months on the CU campus. But even as the team was shipping the house back to Boulder last week, Brandemuehl got word that the engineering department won't cover the cost of putting the already over-budget house at the planned location — estimated as high as $20,000.

 

So for now, the house sits in pieces on the site where it was constructed while the students look for a spot where installation won't be as expensive. With the 2,100-square-foot house that will surround the entry still to be built, this won't be the last budget issue they'll need to work out. "Worst case is that we end up in the hole, and that sort of talk makes people nervous — justifiably so. It makes me nervous," Brandemuehl says. "It's like any other project: At the end of the day, somebody's paying for this."


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