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"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.

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Jessica Centers