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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.

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Jessica Centers