Solar Decathlon team finds a home at Joe’s Inn

October 15, 2009

CORNELL CHRONICLE — For nearly three weeks at the U.S. Department of Energy's 2009 Solar Decathlon competition, almost 150 student members of the Cornell Solar Decathlon team cycle in and out of Washington, D.C. They may be there for two days or two weeks, but one thing is certain: Almost everybody stays at Joe's.

Joe Manelski '56 owns a large home in McLean, a comfortable Virginia suburb of Washington. His neighbors have been cabinet members and Kennedys. During the biennial Solar Decathlon, the Cornell team makes Joe's house Joe's Inn.

Home away from home

"These students work very hard, and they need a place to relax. I have this 23-room house, and a house is nothing unless it is used," said Manelski. "By having the team stay here at Waverly Manor, they can achieve their greatest potential. The students need to network. There are hundreds of mini-meetings between the team leaders and the team members. It strengthens their esprit de corps and helps them achieve their objective."

Like at home, the Cornell students curl up on sofas to complete homework, they conduct research on their computers, they update their Facebook accounts. Students are proctored during tests (since some are missing tests back on the Ithaca campus); others hang out in the swimming pool and the hot tub in their off hours.

No morsel left behind

College students are much like piranhas during feeding time. The team's pipe fitter, Scott Albrecht, Cornell plumber and general foreman, doubles as the team's sous chef for breakfast and dinner — even after putting in long days and sometimes all-nighters. Albrecht and Manelski produce delicious meals fit for a small army. (Manelski knows about serving armies. He served in the U.S. Navy as a commissary officer, stocking food for his ship's half-year missions.)

Breakfast is a quiet time: The kitchen is packed full of huge boxes of Cheerios, Raisin Bran, and Special K, plus large amounts of apples, oranges, and bananas. Manelski updates the stock daily. You can smell the bacon cooking at 5:30 a.m. Dozens of bagels get wolfed down before the sun peeks above the eastern horizon.

Manelski gets help from other Cornell families. For example, Kim Epstein lives nearby. She is a Cornell parent who has been making scrumptious dishes like chicken with corn and black bean salsa, beef stew, corn pudding, salad with cranberries, and five gallons of ratatouille.

Sean Tamon '08, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, prepared the team's two dinners required by the competition. In his off hours, he helped Manelski cook for the team. "Sean is amazing to watch. He took green apples and turned them into apple pies for his teammates in no time," Manelski said.

During the weeks of the competition, Manelski leaves the front door unlocked. Students arrive at 2 a.m. sometimes, and they unwrap their sleeping bags and crash. Students are strewn throughout the home. Team leaders get bedrooms; the rank and file find sofas or spots on all four levels of the house.


Manelski admires this group of hardworking students, who worked late into the night on the eve of competition. He delivered dinner, made by Epstein — beef stew and corn pudding — to the Cornell Silo House on the Mall. "The students had set up a plywood table. It was 10:45 at night. The only thing they were missing was a white tablecloth and chairs to sit on. We sat on the ground and ate," Manelski said with a smile.

"There I was," he said, "sitting on the Mall — sitting between the brightly lit Capitol building and the brightly lit Washington Monument — under full moon with these great students. It was awesome. That's a memory you don't forget."

The Solar Decathlon ends Oct. 18. Check back to read about the team's result.

By Blaine P. Friedlander Jr.

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