Solar Decathlon a valuable learning experience for student team

October 22, 2007

Even before the 2007 Solar Decathlon competition ended, students on Cornell's team suspected they would not be second-best for a second time. Cornell's team, which placed second in 2005, came in 19th out of 20 at the biennial Solar Decathlon competition held on the National Mall last week. "We knew we had a good house and a good system -- it's just a shame that it's not acknowledged," said a disappointed Joanna Krzyspiak '08, a bioengineering major who worked on the house's heating and ventilation systems. "But you have to hold your head high. Ultimately, Solar Decathlon is about you within the team. The competition matters least in all of that." A team from Germany's Technische Universität Darmstadt was announced the winner October 19 by U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman '61. The University of Maryland was second, and Santa Clara (CA) University came in third. A group of experts judged the teams and their houses in 10 categories, including engineering, hot water, lighting, energy balance, architecture, and market viability. Cornell's best individual finish was seventh place in communication, which judges teams' websites and public presentations. "Everyone seems to like us but the judges," said Bryan Wolin '08, a communication major, on October 18, the night before the competition ended. The Cornell team had slipped from ninth place to 15th on October 17, and then 19th place by the morning of October 19. In tours of its house, Cornell team members touted the energy-efficient appliances, gray-water recycling system, sustainably harvested cork flooring, adaptable external "light canopy" supporting the house's solar panels, and the extensive edible-plants landscape. "What I really liked was the fact that it had a lot of open space and vegetation outside, and ... people who could communicate [the house's features] in layman's terms," said Stacy Buchler Holstein '79 of Potomac, MD, who toured the house with her children. The decathlon and Cornell's team also received media coverage ranging from local news to visits by crews from CBS "Sunday Morning" and Sundance Channel. The Cornell team hosted a "Homemade.Local.Sustainable" six-course dinner for members of three other teams October 16, using herbs and vegetables grown in planters around the Cornell house. The six-course dinner was prepared and presented by Taverna Banfi staff -- Chef Ryan Beard, Hotel '08; Line Cook and Solar Decathlon landscape architecture team member Bonnie Kirn '08; and adviser and Chef d'Cuisine Anthony Jordan. The menu included pumpkin ravioli, chilled broccoli soup, roasted eggplant with sweet bell peppers, mixed salad with marigolds and fresh herb dressing, Cornell house-made mozzarella and spinach-stuffed radicchio. The dinner was one of the many examples of teamwork and applying individual students' talents to the decathlon effort. "The major thing for me was learning team dynamics," Krzyspiak said. "We kind of functioned as a small company. [We were] learning to communicate with different majors in different fields. This has been a huge learning experience for everyone." The 2007 event, the third such competition since 2002, was the largest ever, with 20 teams from the United States, Canada, Spain, and Germany. Thousands of visitors flocked to the mall from October 11-20 to see the houses. "The technology you see here on display works," Bodman said during closing ceremonies, noting the continued use of houses entered in the decathlon in 2002 and 2005. "The focus on moving technologies from the lab to the marketplace doesn't end with this competition. The next group of solar decathletes have their work cut out for them."

by Daniel Aloi

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