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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.

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Jessica Centers