Partly Sunny

Page 3 of 11

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jessica Centers