Solar Decathlon 2009 Update: The Houses Leave Home

Reader Contribution by Anna Flin

In the process of making connections with students and faculty involved in this year’s Solar Decathlon, I’ve become acquainted with several notably intelligent people, many of whom are younger than I. They answer my questions with enthusiastic forecasts, not just for their own success in the upcoming competition, but for a future that will benefit from what they have learned, whether or not they win a trophy.

But that enthusiasm has a slight blur around the edges. Sleep deprivation. Assembly starts at midnight, tonight. And it’s probably safe to assume that shops in D.C. providing caffeine in any form will be doing well for the next three weeks. While students, advisors and volunteers are gearing up for the clock to strike 12, we’ll take a look at what they’ve gone through the past few days, just to make it all possible.

For many of the solar-powered houses entered in this year’s competition, the journey from home to the National Mall is not a short one. It’s a complex process requiring students and advisors to disassemble the fruit of two years’ labor, load it onto trucks, and send it down the road, just hoping it will arrive in D.C. in one piece.

Chris Werner, team leader for Cornell University’s Solar Decathlon team describes the process of preparing the Silo House for departure on Sept. 28.

“Every door must be secured,” Werner says. “Every tank must be drained.  Ducts are demounted for travel.  PV’s, evacuated tubes, and structural steel are demounted and packaged.  All windows and openings will be covered with travel-grade shrink wrap.  Most appliances will be removed.  Every item that could potentially shift, fall, or break will be wrapped and secured in place.”

Not only can the houses be damaged in transit, the trucks tend to experience problems on the highway.

Associate Professor at Santa Clara University, Timothy Hight recalls the misfortune of 2007.

“… we were delayed twice by broken axles on our trailer, and arrived on the mall about 2 and ½ days late.”

This year, Team California’s Refract House made it successfully to D.C. on time, despite minor complications on the journey.

“We had to wait a few extra days for our most fragile module as it was stuck in the Atlanta rains,” Project Manager Allison Kopf says.

And things don’t get any easier once the trucks successfully reach D.C. Dean of Boston Architectural College, Jeff Stein, discusses the potentially overwhelming experience of figuring out what to do with Team Boston’s Curio House until it’s time to unload it at midnight on Oct. 1.

“…this is the first time we have done something like this, and through our truckers, we have only just learned that the city of Washington, D.C. will only allow wide-load trucks into the city limits between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” Stein says. “So now we are making calls to see where we can put these trucks inside the city for nine hours or so.”

Having survived the heart-stopping experience of riding through D.C. traffic, I can only imagine being surrounded by wide-load trucks carrying house components, but University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Construction Manager, Joseph Rice, casually sums it up by saying of the Meltwater House that it’s “…slightly nerve racking to see a 7,200-pound roof section swaying in the breeze.”

Check out this time-lapse video of Cornell University constructing and then disassembling the Silo House.  You may want to keep the volume down if you don’t enjoy the sounds of construction in fast-forward.

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