These students have a house to build, but it's hard to ignore the "big, black monolith" looming next door.
That's what some on the Cornell University team are calling their neighbor, a menacing, dark cube matted with solar panels. As it glints in the afternoon sun just a few yards away, it serves as a constant reminder of what it will take to win this year's Solar Decathlon, a contest sponsored here by the U.S. Department of Energy.
One student calls it "a force to reckon with." There's a rumor going around that it churned out 19 kilowatts yesterday. Raw power isn't everything in this race, but it's still a lot compared to Cornell's 8 kilowatts.
The "monolith" is the entry for Technische Universität Darmstadt, or Team Germany, and it is a chief rival for Cornell in this 20-team contest aimed at building the most innovative and efficient solar-powered house on the National Mall. Judging starts today, meaning the team from Ithaca, N.Y., will soon learn the result of its two-year quest for redemption.
Cornell has built "Silo House," a trio of rust-colored towers with solar panels propped overhead. The team is led by Chris Werner, a third-year student in the graduate architecture program -- and one of the "veterans," in his words, that witnessed the team's last, disappointing effort in 2007.
Werner is no stranger to hard hats. In 2005, he was a rookie carpenter splitting his time between Annapolis, Md., and Washington, mostly restoring historic buildings. It was steady work, but something about it didn't scratch his idealistic itch.
Something about green buildings did. "As I was reading about sustainable design, I was really interested in the possibility of creating a building that seemed ethically responsible," he said. "It just didn't seem like it was being done, especially with what I was seeing in the field at the time."
In a trip to the Solar Decathlon that year, the Cornell entry, which took second place, impressed him. It wasn't long before he applied to their architecture school, and in 2006, he took up with its Solar Decathlon team.
Werner had spruced up buildings before, but this was an entirely different affair. The team would have to see the entire project through, from blueprint to construction. His inner architect recognized the moment: Design a green building right the first time, and you don't have to worry about energy waste later.
The learning experience turned out to be rockier than he had hoped. Werner insists that the team was skilled and well led. But the house that Cornell brought to Washington in 2007 "was never 100 percent complete and never 100 percent tested."
Cornell rebounds from from 'catastrophic failures'
To put the icing on the cake, he said, the team faced "a few catastrophic failures that were just really unfortunate." The house's batteries, for example, hadn't been primed to hold their full charge -- so even as sun beamed onto Cornell's house, the energy wasn't saved.
Hemorrhaging power right and left, with new problems cropping up every moment, the team stumbled, finishing second to last.
It was the German house, built by Darmstadt, that stunned the judges, from its sleek architecture to its clean integration of solar power. The house even glowed at night. It "pushed the envelope on all levels," said Energy Department spokesman Tom Welch. For a week, crowds lined up to look inside.
For Werner and his colleagues, it was back to Ithaca -- and back to the drawing board. Their next chance would have to wait until 2009.
For DOE, the decathlon serves to raise the profile of solar power and the zero-energy buildings that would otherwise seem like science fiction. The competition draws corporate sponsors in the green-buildings field, and they get the chance to showcase their technologies to students who will one day rule the business and will rely on products they know and trust.
"These are up-and-coming architects. These are the guys that are in a few years from now designing homes and buildings and specifying what products to put in them," said Bryan Magnus, the head marketing director for a building insulation foam made by Honeywell. The insulation features in seven of the Decathlon's 20 homes.
And for the students -- at least those who remain -- it's a labor of love. They speak of 10-hour days, for months on end. Some have taken time from their schoolbooks to work on the project. Others have persuaded their schools to let them work on it nearly full-time. Cornell's ground crew changes day by day, as students go to and from Ithaca for classes.
Fun, suspense and hard wiring
The Decathletes swear they're having fun, but there's no denying it's stressful, too.
With only minutes to complete their house for judging, the team from the University of Louisiana, Lafayette, ran into a wiring problem. It's chronicled on the team blog:
"6:00 PM -- We were still having trouble with our breakers. I even called home and asked my family to start praying for us because the thought of not being able to start the competition was heartbreaking."
Hastily, the team sent to the hardware store to buy new ones. They worked, but were incompatible with the power outlets.
"7:15 PM -- 7:20 PM -- WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO!?"
They sprinted around the Solar Village, pleading with other teams for spare parts. By 7:45, the outlets were installed. They called for the inspectors as the clock ticked toward eight.
"7:55 PM -- Call for final inspection and PASS!!!!!!!!!!"
The idea of the decathlon came to Richard King, a staffer in DOE's Building Technologies Program, in 1999. For decades, he had seen solar power struggle in the housing market. The technology was ready, but it looked ghastly.
"People were slapping them up on roofs through the '70s and '80s, they didn't look that great," he said. "A lot of homeowner associations were saying, 'Uh, I don't want those in my neighborhood.' Because yeah, they didn't look that good."
DOE's challenge to future architects
"So I thought, well, let's challenge the architects to figure this out," he said. "Let's make an aesthetic house that is solar-powered and is reliable and going to work."
With their wells of knowledge and adventurous thinking, universities were an obvious candidate to participate. Now all he needed was a place to hold the contest -- a flat one, where all teams could get an equal share of sun as they assembled their temporary structures.
The National Mall fit the bill, its grassy stripe running through the Smithsonian museums en route to the Capitol -- which, by the way, remains coal-powered.
There would be 10 scoring categories -- hence "decathlon" -- adding up to an overall score. A house not only would have to be attractive, but would have to use almost no net energy. It not only would have to go without fossil-fuel power, it would have to come with a creative flair. Even its viability for the mass market would be graded.
Gradually, the contest began to include new schools, including from abroad. And the technical demands began to rise.
Every class, King said, is better than the last. "This set is distinctly better, collectively, than all of the last event in 2007," he said. "They're getting greener, they're getting more technologically advanced. Some of these houses can be operated from an iPhone."
This year, the new challenge is "net metering." All houses in the Solar Village, as it's called, plug into a local grid -- an extension of the power lines used by Pepco, the local utility. The homes feature "smart meters" that measure not just how much energy each house consumes, but how much it releases back to the grid.
If all goes well, a Decathlon home does more than power itself -- it sells power to Pepco, which routes the electricity to its District of Columbia customers.
Making every watt count
Utilities around the country have begun to experiment with this concept, installing millions of smart meters to measure where power is needed and when. The next step, it's hoped, will be tools that can direct their power more precisely. The logical step after that, it's said, is for consumers to start generating their own electricity, selling it to the utility and forgoing the need for new power plants.
Right now, the Germans are looking tough to beat. They finished first in "energy balance" last year, and this year, their house is designed to pump out twice the power it actually needs.
The Cornell team takes a different tack. Its array produces a lot less solar power than the German team's does, but it relies on a tight building to make every watt count. It can run a flat-screen TV, keep the lights bright and run all the kitchen appliances, but it comes with a cost: The house puts a lot less onto the grid than the Germans.
But for Werner and Cornell, the challenge is less about the Germans, and more about redressing their 2007 defeat. First, the team sought to break with the trailer-shaped design of Cornell's last two entries.
"We had this idea that we wanted to do something really eccentric and different," he said of the house's design, which mimics the grain silos that pop up around Ithaca. The brand of steel was specifically chosen for its rusty face. Getting the best solar water heaters and air conditioning was obvious. More important to Werner, this time, was practice.
As summer came to a close, Cornell shipped its house to the New York State Fair. They set up the whole house, just as they would in Washington. They ran all its systems, just as they would in Washington.
By the time they finish, this house has to entertain a small dinner party and a movie night. After all, the house can't merely save energy -- it must also be livable.
The mood is remarkably light for students that have spent most of their days together, for most of the last two years, occasionally clashing about how the project ought to be done. Rarely do they glance at the competition, the German monolith a few yards away. As they do the final tweaks on the Silo, the Cornell team tries to stay focused on the present, not the past.