Student reflects on the Solar Decathlon experience

Shannon Sickler, a student in Norwich’s Master of Architecture program, has been devoted to the effort to bring a student-designed-and built-house to the international 2013 Solar Decathlon competition for several years. On Oct. 25, 2013, she spoke about the project at the Board of Trustees dinner.

Shannon Sickler addressing the Norwich University Board of Trustees“President Schneider, [Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Guiyou] Huang, Trustees, faculty, honored guests and colleagues, I’m honored to spend the evening with you and share the amazing experiences of Norwich University’s Solar Decathlon team.

Last week the team returned from Irvine, California, after spending a month at the United States Department of Energy 2013 Solar Decathlon. As many of you may know, the Solar Decathlon is an international competition where students design, build, transport and operate high performance, solar powered homes. The winner of the competition is the team that balances beauty, cost and energy efficiency in a design that maximizes sustainable principles and optimizes energy production. Just three weeks ago, Norwich University’s Delta T-90 Team competed on the international stage against 18 other universities in this competition, promoting the benefits of solar energy and showcasing the amazing talents of our student team.

The competition is based on 10 sub-contests. Five of these contests are considered juried contests, which include Architecture, Engineering, Market Appeal, Communications, and Affordability, and five are measured contests, which include Comfort Zone, Hot Water, Home Entertainment, Appliances, and Energy Balance. After our acceptance into the competition in early 2012, our team determined that our mission would focus on redefining the affordability contest. In Vermont, 82 percent of households earning under $41,000 annually direct more than one-third of their annual income toward mortgage and housing utility costs. We believed that proving that solar power is accessible to those earning 20 percent below the median income in Vermont is crucial to the future of high performance homes. Therefore, over the last two years, we balanced energy efficiency, design and cost in a simple yet elegant solution for modern living.

Norwich University’s Delta T-90 House for Solar Decathlon 2013 is a 996 square foot, two-bedroom home tuned for the unique seasons of the northeast. It explores the interdependency between the economy and the built environment by revealing the hidden values within a conservation-based lifestyle. The economic feasibility of the Delta T-90 House allows solar-powered living to become a realistic option to homeowners. Each design maneuver within the Delta T-90 House was made with consideration for the homeowner and their demands. Its design considered the economic and functional demands of regional architecture. This high-performance home models the future of affordable, energy-efficient living in Vermont.

Our design process was completed entirely by the student team. Our passion for design and for maintaining our mission demonstrated the pride that our team holds in this project. The Delta T-90 House was partially constructed in the Huntington Homes manufacturing facility in East Montpelier and was finished on campus through the spring and summer months. On September 9th, the house was loaded onto two trucks and traveled over 3,000 miles across the country to the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. This is when we knew that our journey was both beginning and coming to an end. After two years of hard work, we were finally ready to compete!

So, now you know a bit about the Delta T-90 House and the competition, let me tell you about us. Our team is comprised of Architecture, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Construction Management, and Marketing members. This interdisciplinary nature allowed students to learn from each other and learn to work together, as we will when we reach the working world. It is crucial in the building sciences to be knowledgeable in your field, but it is more important to be able to understand and communicate with other disciplines. Although it was a learning curve for many of us, our growth as a team is evident in our many accomplishments.

As a team, we collected over 1,600 Facebook likes and countless media connections both in Vermont and in California. Through the Solar Decathlon, Norwich University reached an audience of over 235 million people. Our ability to communicate the ideals of our project and our school made us a “favorite” in California. Our passion and enthusiasm is clear in the way that we represent the future of Norwich University.

I’m sure you all want to hear about the competition! I believe our entire team can agree that it was a whirlwind of swinging hammers, data analysis, public tours, jury walkthroughs and sheer excitement for finally making it to California. We had 10 days to reassemble the Delta T-90 house, and of course we finished in nine. We were the first team to complete all of the required inspections for touring and public exhibit, and we received countless compliments (from other teams) for our composure and organization around the construction process.

We discovered that we had a lot to learn about the intricate details of the competition, but through communication with the organizers we competed strongly in all 10 competitions. We were also rewarded with excellent feedback from the public. They particularly enjoyed the open and spacious feeling of our interior and the lack of visual presence of the solar panels. Through the contests and the public exhibit, our Delta T-90 House proved to be a huge success. The visiting alumni group was impressed by how far Norwich has come since “their days on the Hill” and they swapped stories about the old days as they toured the Delta T-90 house.

However, competition and points aside, our biggest honor was received on the evening of the closing ceremony. The Norwich University team received an award in honor of Byron Stafford, longtime operations managers for the Solar Decathlon, who passed away in May 2013. We had the opportunity to meet Mr. Stafford in January at the Design Development Conference and his commitment to the competition was unsurpassed. We were chosen for this award as the team that best represented the spirit of Byron Stafford. Richard King, founder and director of Solar Decathlon, described Byron as honest, caring, humble, intelligent, fair, reliable, steadfast and genuine. Our team could not be more proud to receive this award and represent Norwich values in our work ethic and determination for success.

The Solar Decathlon Delta T-90 House will permanently reside at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westcott House Foundation as the Experiential Design Lab. The house will see over 12,000 visitors a year and teach the public about solar energy. Back in Vermont, Norwich is actively researching the process of building locally focused Delta T-90 houses for testing in their designed climate.

The project has been a huge adventure for our whole team. From the beginning of the design process, through drafting construction documents and project manuals, to construction and the grand finale of the competition, we have learned what hard work can create. We have learned to communicate, collaborate and compromise. We are a stronger university now because we proved to ourselves that we can perform as an interdisciplinary team. We hope we have made you proud, Norwich, and can’t wait to see what our university will do in the future.”