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It's easy being green 

Cal Poly competes in national Solar Decathlon

School is nearly out, but the Cal Poly Solar Decathlon team will be working all summer; what they started
several weeks ago must be
finished by this fall.

On May 12, at their kickoff event for a sustainable-building competition, they threw a party. There were root-beer floats, cake, an electric car, and a solar-powered P.A. system. It was a regular solar geek bender, and it was raging. Sam Blakeslee even showed up.

Dressed in matching yellow T-shirts, the Solar Decathlon team revealed plans for the construction of their energy-efficient 600-square-foot house at the Cal Poly softball field. The team is one of only 19 - and the lone California entrant - competing in the U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored Solar Decathlon.

But now the party is over and the team, originally made up of 20 students but pared down to 10 during the summer, is busy constructing the house. By June 10, Robert Peña, Cal Poly Solar faculty adviser, said the team will raise the walls on the house, but first they are reinforcing the metal frame on which the house will be built. The details and finishing are what will hopefully make the house a pleasurable habitation.

The team's goal is to design the most efficient and affordable home by utilizing sustainable, environmentally friendly goods. In Washington, D.C., the team will compete in the 10 categories of the Solar Decathlon.

The driven group of students is working to solve two of California's most important issues - affordable housing and energy consumption, said Tom Jones, dean of Architecture and Design at Cal Poly. Jones calls himself the "green dean."

Jones, who was obviously excited, said that projects like this one, based on conservation and sustainability, "unite fiscal conservatives and social liberals."

Robert Peña called the design "something of a prototype for cost-effective and resource-effective housing."

The team showed off all the sustainable materials it plans to use in the construction of the house, and had on hand the actual base for the residence - a giant metal chassis that a mobile-home company donated to the group. The trailer frame will not only act as the foundation, it will be used in its eventual haul all the way to Washington, D.C. in September.

The students said that at first they saw having to truck the house all the way to D.C. as a hindrance. But now they're seeing it as a potential solution to the problem of affordable housing. Hopefully in the future, an affordable and energy-efficient house will be shipped to customers just like any other doublewide home.

The students involved with the project seem to be mostly ideal-driven; they want to use intelligent design to correct social and environmental problems.

"My view on [sustainable design] is it's the way the industry is going," said Brian Friel, a fourth-year architecture student who has been involved with the Solar Decathlon project since its start two years ago. "We might as well be one of the front runners instead of trying to play catch-up."

Friel, who is planning on pursuing a career in sustainable architecture after he graduates, said that change "is going to happen if the government decides it needs to happen." In October all 18 teams competing will display their houses on the National Mall. It's there that the Cal Poly team expects between 40,000 and 50,000 people to walk through its house.

Robert Johnson, a master's student, said, "We need to transition away from fossil fuels. With something as important as the environment, you can't afford to be wrong."

Johnson said that the photovoltaic system (solar panels), which will power the house's heating and cooling systems, lights, and appliances, will cost $45,000. Current energy rebates, designed to encourage solar building, would give back $16,000, or 35 percent of the cost.

"What I'm seeing is so much of a push to have this be a trend," said Johnson. "It's not there yet."

After the competition, the house will get trucked back to Cal Poly to be used as a model for environmental design and sustainable architecture. But before then, the Cal Poly team has a lot of work to do. But they seem ready and eager for the challenge.

"I'm excited to be working on this project," said Friel. "And I'm proud to be from the only school in California going to the Solar Decathlon." ³

 

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.

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