More Than a Competition: Clemson’s Solar Decathlon Affect on the University at All Levels
By: Emily Gach
There are 4,599 universities in the United States. Only 17 of these universities are chosen to compete in the United States Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, and Clemson University is one of them. The Solar Decathlon is a competition held biennially to challenge collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. It is essentially a measured energy competition for residential construction. The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon consists of 10 contests, which are intended to measure how well the houses perform, how livable they are, and how affordable they are. Each contest is worth a maximum of 100 points, a total of 1,000 points. Clemson University has a team of 128 faculty and students, including architecture, engineering, and packaging science majors, who competed in the 2015 Solar Decathlon competition. Clemson University first got involved with The U.S. D.O.E. Solar Decathlon when Vincent Blouin, Associate Professor in the School of Architecture and the School of Materials Science and Engineering, approached Daniel Harding, Associate Professor and Director of the Community Outreach and Design Center, about submitting a proposal to the competition in the spring of 2013. Both Blouin and Harding were immediately interested in bringing this project to Clemson, and architecture students mirrored this enthusiasm.
Community Aspect in MIND Professionally, Daniel Harding specialized in creative, sustainable and affordable housing projects prior to arriving at Clemson. His background and his values within the realm of residential construction provided the groundwork on which Clemson’s Solar Decathlon team was built. Aside from the competition itself in the construction of the house, Harding was adamant that the project must have a strong social-redeeming quality to it as well. Harding said, “With Clemson being a land-grant university, I thought the project must exist to serve as an extension of the state of South Carolina. That’s where an economic generator of the state — wood —comes into play.” From this vision, the Clemson Solar Decathlon house, “Indigo Pine,” was formed. Indigo Pine gets its name from two crops important to South Carolina: the indigo plant and the pine tree. Indigo’s rich blue dye symbolizes the state’s tradition and culture, while pine’s sturdy versatility represents the team’s construction approach. The prototype is a three-bedroom, 1,000 square foot, energy-efficient home appropriate for a Southern family. The team is working with Greenville Tech, Clemson University’s Wood Utilization and Design Institute, and industry partners to achieve a highly innovative design and construction delivery process. Aside from utilizing pine, Clemson’s Solar Decathlon team wanted to make sure that the project illustrated a community aspect. With this in mind, the team designed Indigo Pine specifically for a South Carolina family of four. Harding stated that the team didn’t want to predetermine what that definition of family was, they just wanted to make sure the house could evolve and adapt to the changing dynamics of a growing family. The Indigo Pine house is simple and streamlined, without many elaborate and ornate details.
Aside from the competition itself in the construction of the house, Harding was adamant that the project must have a strong social-redeeming quality to it as well.
The vision was for anyone to be able to contribute to the construction of this house. When we sat down to discuss the project, Harding told me, “There is no doubt in my mind that within an hour you’d become a totally competent member of the crew.” By utilizing basic construction instruments, such as hand crimps and stainless steel zip ties, the students have made the Indigo Pine house a very accessible project to contribute to. This was an important aspect of Harding’s vision because he didn’t want to isolate the project solely to architecture students. The simple nature of the house’s construction makes the project less intimidating to students without architecture experience, which is important considering that the multidisciplinary team spans a broad range of majors. The simple nature of its construction also exemplifies a major component of this project — sustainability. The U.S. Department of Energy conducts this competition to create a sustainable residential home, yet, according to Harding, they do not take into consideration the energy that goes into building these homes. Clemson’s team found this ironic and decided to make energy conservation a cornerstone in the actual construction of the house. This idea comes into play in the techniques they will use when constructing the house in Irvine, California, where the competition will take place.
The team could have shipped the parts of the house to California and then shipped the parts back to Clemson, but that would have used an excessive amount of energy. Instead, the team decided that they could actually build two houses, one in Clemson and one in California, which would be cheaper than shipping an entire house from one coast to another. The team will accomplish this feat by saving the files and measurements of the house in Clemson and re-printing them again in California to build the same exact house on site. In order to streamline this process, the team brought in several Packaging Science majors. “With the help of Dr. Scott Mason, an industrial engineer professor, we used the critical path method to code into excel an efficient way to organize all of their tasks,” said junior packaging science major Grey Strait. Being able to construct the exact same house in Clemson that they will construct in Irvine allows the team to walk through the entire process prior to the actual competition. Harding calls the work Clemson University has done with the Solar Decathlon “the most sincere research project out of all projects I’ve worked on as a faculty member.” Dana Graunke, a graduate teaching assistant on the project, shares Harding’s view. “Solar Decathlon has provided me with the most practical learning and working experience to date. I have continued to work on this project through the years because I have seen first-hand the broad knowledge that one can obtain while being a part of this project,” Graunke said. “I have learned how important good communication skills are to the success of the project as well as thinking critically on the balance of innovation and practicality.” Outside of the hands-on experience it provides for students, the Solar Decathlon affects the university on all levels. The project is socially responsible, sustainable, and it contributes to its community on both a national and local level. The competition took place from October 8th through 18th in Irvine, California.
Written By: Emily Gach
Emily Gach is a junior English BS major at Clemson University. She is a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority and hopes to continue to develop her skills within public relations, writing, and editing.