It’s Time to Go Home

About the only sign of life today at the decathlon site were a few hundred students, walking zombie-like through the equipment, materials, detritus and partially-disassembled houses. And even a few still fully complete structures…
It was a mad rush to bring the solar “village” to life some three weeks ago, and the survivors are exhausted. No more scoring contests, no more crowds, no more middle-of-the-night ballot stuffing for the People’s Choice award, no more excitement on which to feed.
Starting Sunday the Miners worked until 2:00 a.m or later each night pulling the house apart and reloading it for the trip back to campus and it’s permanent home on what was the old 10th Street golf driving range.
As in many of the previous solar decathlons in which S&T (nee’ UMR) competed, the Nest Home was the first structure by far to vacate its temporary property. DSC_6023Today was simply sweep up, hook up the SDELC trucks/trailers and wait for the DOE landlord to check us out and refund our security deposit.
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Most other teams still had quite a ways to go, and even our friends at Stevens Institute of Technology, the well-deserved winner of the 14-team event, were kiddingly jealous of our planning and execution.

That proves that Missouri S&T has a firm grasp on the art of building science.

See you back in Rolla.


As the point totals among the top four Solar Decathlon teams continue to climb, the percentile differences between each team grow smaller.

Days ago the variations between first and second place, or second or third were calculated to be about 1%. Now that percentage has shrunk to about one half of a percent. Nerve racking, as the event winds down.

S&T has slipped to 3rd place, just a point-and-a-half (or 4/10ths percent) behind Buffalo, but we think the juried (subjective) results, due to be announced in a few hours will return the Miners to their rightful place as best of the best.

Meanwhile, all across campus people have one eye on their work and one eye on the decathlon scores. Kinda like listening quietly to the baseball playoffs at their desks while pretending to work. We’ve heard of that happening on other campuses, but oh, no, not in Rolla.

The lowly Cubs took care of that….

Solar Decathlon Judging, and You Can Vote!

LeadersignWOW! The Miners’ Nest Home has edged into the lead. Runner-up Stevens Institute of Technology’s score is 99.999% of S&T’s number (really!), so it’s a virtual dead heat. While we’re all excited, the objective scores amount to reading computer data; so long as each home’s power systems keep functioning don’t expect a breakthrough until the subjective scores start coming in.

Many of the homes focus on applying technology to solve location-specific problems. Stevens’ magnificent entry is for the hurricane-vulnerable east coast, a lesson learned during Superstorm Sandy; Crowder/Drury’s is for Tornado Alley. What truly separates the Nest Home is that it’s designed for a life CYCLE, not just a life style.

Meanwhile, the “people’s choice” voting is going on. Place your daily vote at The Miners take pride in voting honestly. In the past there has been some suspected electronic/election-box stuffing, so despite all the computing power at our fingertips, we stay ethical. This is not big-time college sports.


Many of the DOE staff (not the judges. Yet) have quietly said the Nest Home is their favorite design.

Public interest in the Solar Decathlon has been high. Weekend crowds were steady and strong, but sometimes the public reactions to a house tells us far more about a specific family than they might choose to reveal. One couple approached the Nest Home and the wife went crazy over the house and wanted to tour it. Husband said “I like it except for the American flag” and walked away.” His loss. Hers, too. She’s married to him. She can dump him but we are not taking down the flag. We even made sure the flag was lit up at night, the only house to do so.

Open for Business!!!!

This afternoon it was “throw the doors open and meet your neighbors!” as decathletes from fourteen teams had a chance to see what lay behind their competitors’ walls. While five houses aren’t quite ready for visitors, the Miners toured the other eight completed houses to find wonderfully open and airy living spaces, but more on that later…
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Chancellor Cheryl Schrader made it down to southern California to see the results of her investment in sustainability and experiential learning, and to see how the Miners hold up against the best uh, minds from other states.

Tomorrow? Lots of things happening but it doesn’t start with the Solar Decathlon opening ceremony. At dawn most of the Miners’ setup crew, consisting of some students, the Student Design Center staff, and the unsung heroes from Design and Construction Management (DCM) will pack up and head for the airport. Students need to catch up on classes, the DCM guys will get some well-deserved time at home, and the center staff will tend to the needs of the other S&T student design teams. PR-focused students have flown in to take over the public tours, operate the Nest Home, answer judges’ questions about the technology, and promote the Nest Home in the five all-important (and extremely hard to handicap) subjective contests. The five objective events appeal to the engineer in all of us, because it’s all verifiable data.

Twelve days from now the entire process is reversed. Decathlon over, these structures must disappear from the asphalt in five days or less. The Miners have already moved the house twice (to campus and California), so we hope to have the house on the road and all the design center trucks, trailers and personnel back in Rolla in six days. Just in time to miss homecoming…

We alluded earlier to bright and airy solar homes. Each structure is limited to 1,000sft of conditioned space, and how a team maximizes that space is the challenge. A number of the homes rely on huge patio doors that open to the outside, minimalist/uncluttered decorations, and white paint. Lots of white paint. Paint that spreads light and makes the facility seem even bigger because the eye doesn’t see much detail in a white wall; everything seems seamless. These are the showpieces that will be featured in architectural magazines.
Less so with the Nest Home. Visitors walk into the Miner home and break into wide smiles. They love its colors and textures. Its whimsy and warmth, its lack of confining walls. The eclectic mix of the new and the repurposed; the blend of soft fabrics, cedar trim and corrugated steel walls. A touch of steam punk, even. The kitchen, the heart of the home, looks like a place where meal-making can be fun; not so sparse that an overlooked morsel could be cause for embarrassment. Yes, a real home. Repurposed and efficient of course, but human. Fun, even. Just like the lessons our students take from the two-year marathon and on into the future.

Proud to be a Miner!

p.s. This will be the last first-hand account of the decathlon, as the ancient scribe is joining the Rolla-or-Bust crew. We’ll do our best to flesh-out texts, tweets, and emails that keep us informed, and make it seem like we are still in Irvine. Which we will be when the party’s over.


DSC_4410High-five, chest bump, fist in the air, whatever, the Miners are an ecstatic bunch!

Decathlon rules required each team to pass three critical inspections by noon yesterday: site cleanup, public exhibit and public safety.
The first one is obvious; clean your “yard” of everything including lumber, tools, nails, vehicles, and even sawdust. Public exhibit is showing off your signage and your plans to educate the public on what a great house S&T has hauled to California. Public safety is full ADA compliance, no sharp edges, tripping hazards or anything else that could put the public at risk, important because we expect thousands of visitors to revel in the brilliance of the Nest Home’s design, execution, and performance.
Surprisingly, of the fourteen solar houses on site, only THREE (count ‘em) three houses met the deadline. The Miners, our next door neighbors from Stevens Institute of Technology, and Cal Poly, just across the street. A number of teams are behind schedule. Some have large piles of lumber, unassembled deck sections, and even heavy equipment still in their “lots” and that’s gonna start costing them points. Good for us, rough on the remaining eleven entries.

What’s more, the S&T/Cal Poly/Stevens enclave not only occupies the physical high ground of the solar ‘town,’ we three now lay claim to the psychological/emotional peak of the solar population at the Orange County Great Park.
With a noon deadline, and three inspectors rotating among the each of the “finished” homes there was a friendly wager going as to who would be cleared first. It’s hard to prove who actually had the bragging rights, but Mary Puleo’s crew makes a pretty good argument for the Miners being #1. And since we write this blog we feel there’s no question but that Missouri S&T is #1.

The Nest Home has been drawing a lot of enthusiastic visitors. Not the public, as that starts next week but event officials, nearly all of whom are veterans of several Solar Decathlons dating back as far as 2002. That’s a good sign.

So is hosting the Secretary of Energy.
So are the beautifully written signs that the Miners set up to guide and inform the visitors that will descend on the Solar Decathlon in just a few days.

ALL good signs for Missouri S&T.

Exciting News for the Miners!

Solar Decathlon officials announced today that Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz would be visiting the event this Thursday morning. Site officials have chosen three homes for Moniz to tour, and S&T’s Nest Home has made the cut! That’ll mean national publicity for the Miners’ design and S&T’s experiential learning programs.
Today the Miners replaced two solar panels that were damaged in transport, continued with touch-up paint here and there, trimmed out the flower beds with a touch of cedar, added the last of the shrubbery, and filled the flowerbeds with boxes DSC_4201full of long-life, sustainable* plastic flowers. They retain their vibrant colors even in drought-ravaged California.

The Miners’ 2015 design is clearly the “Best Ever” of the six solar homes that S&T has produced in the Decathlon’s 13-year history. Its design is warm, affordable, flexible, and appealing. AND original. Being selected for the home tour seems to indicate the Nest Home has caught the eye of the veteran DOE employees and volunteers who actually run this event. Kinda the-house-you-want-to-introduce-to-your-parents endorsement.

It’s tough for student designers to come up with fresh designs. During the official eight-day construction period (which ends at noon tomorrow) we saw the exposed ‘innards’ of more than a few houses being craned onto their foundations. Clean, modern and just a little impersonal for Midwestern standards one could say. We all love Ikea furniture, but a whole houseful? Maybe not.

On the other hand New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology, our immediate neighbor to the north, has an intriguing approach to modern design they call the SU+RE House, a storm-resistant structure for the mid-Atlantic shoreline. We haven’t seen the interior yet, but they seem to have blended some great operating features into the home so subtly that you have to look very hard to find them. They DO have some spectacular furniture, and if that’s an indication of what’s inside they will be very tough to beat in the subjective contests. It’s no coincidence that Secretary Moniz will also be dropping in on them, too.

*We borrowed them. They’ll get reused many more times bringing joy to countless other people long after we head back to Rolla.

Now THAT’S managing your resources.

The Best Birthday Present EVER!

And the story behind it…

Let us first introduce to you, Richard Dalton, shop and safety operations manager at S&T’s Student Design and Experiential Learning Center.

Richard has a slightly mellow personality, but he shoulders tremendous responsibility at the center. He teaches dozens of technical and safety classes, oversees OrgSync and all the sophisticated software needed to design student projects, buys (or steals) and maintains a barn full of lathes, mills, grinders, welders, and composite layup equipment, machines that well-meaning (but inexperienced) students seem to trash as fast as he can fix it.

Richard also teaches truck/trailer drivers’ education classes after normal(?) duty hours. It’s a wonder he hasn’t burst a blood vessel trying to show students how to back up a 28-foot trailer, or park a big dually pickup truck. Stressful at best…

He’s a master mechanic, superb machinist and even built his own home. A computer/IT wizard, YouTube aficionado, and has been deployed to Afganistan with the Army Reserve.

DSC_7810His office is his inner sanctum, his personal retreat where few are welcome. It’s home to several video monitors, his personal tool set, and the occasional canoe when things get too crowded in the shop. It’s even been known to house a few hundred plastic Easter eggs lovingly placed where it’ll take him months to find them.


DSC_3246Many months ago, Richard’s very expensive and custom-fitted office chair went missing. He was very “close” to that chair and distraught when it disappeared, as similar chairs just wouldn’t “fit.” There were rumors it rolled away DSC_6536 (1) on its own, to go “find itself” and travel the world. Sightings were reported all over the western U.S., often in the vicinity of traveling S&T design teams it was said.
But it never resurfaced.

Fast forward to Irvine, California with the Solar House Design Team and their Nest Home at the Solar Decathlon; high-energy house reassembly under strict time constraints. Richard absolutely WOWED the students with his skills, enthusiasm and experience, and with his birthday on the horizon the students were desperate to show their appreciation to “’Mater,” as he’s known on campus. What to do?

The house has to be furnished, right? What if, just IF, they could find the errant furniture, wouldn’t it be great to bring it “home”? If they COULD recover it, how could they possibly sneak it into the Nest Home as a proper surprise? What on-hand equipment could they use?

Well, there IS that big crane sitting right outside, and since Richard (that’s him on the left) was busy talking……….

And THAT is the story of the best birthday present EVER!

P.S. Too bad the crane operator wouldn’t haul him up about 100 ft. Stupid OSHA rules…..

Solar Decathlon Construction, Day Four

DSC_2990….and while it’s still only the set-up phase, the Miners seem to be outpacing everyone.
Fourteen university teams are busy (re)building their homes for the Solar Decathlon, but as of this morning only eight have passed the foundation set and anchoring inspections. The Miners were one of the first two (if not the first) to pass that first go/no go hurdle. We’re also told the Nest Home was also the first structure to clear inspections on solar mechanical, water storage and service, and water closet isolation.
Today was about adding more “icing” to the cake. The bedroom extension was added by 9:00 a.m. and insulation and interior paneling were in before lunch. Interior trim and HVAC ductwork additions were obvious, but a “mining” crew disappeared underground/under house to hook up electrical and plumbing lines.
At day’s end the two decks/porches were painted while students cleaned the site for a safe start in the morning.

The Solar Decathlon “village” is built on a huge asphalt parking lot, and considering there hasn’t been a cloud in the sky for two days, it gets pretty DSC_3068 (1)hot on the build sites. That’s why construction manager Nolan Severson set aside the hours just before dusk today to install the photovoltaic panels.

That’s quite an impressive start but far from the whole story. One team’s house arrived two days late due to size/weight issues entering California while a second team’s entry struck a bridge not 50 miles from their home campus. Other team members dropped by to share their stories of middle-of-the-night flat tires or vehicle breakdowns, all part of the challenge of getting their designs an hour south of Los Angeles. Stories they will laugh about. Later.

Other observations? Teams are restricted to 1,000 sft of “conditioned” space but that seems to have little bearing on some designs. We haven’t yet toured the other homes, but a few to take up quite a bit of real estate. One beautiful design merges its conditioned space with semi-enclosed decks to expand the concept of “livable” space. Others homes have massive decks, great for living in Southern California but not so practical in Missouri’s spring storms, hot, humid summers or winter ice and sleet.

Building techniques are, uh, varied. One nearby home-building team uses recycled paper/cellulose batt insulation in their domicile but they cut with a high-speed circular saw, turning cellulose into celluDUST that went everywhere. Repeated attempts to sweep up the debris on a breezy day just made matters worse. Too much technology and power thrown at a task better handled with a simple straightedge and a utility knife.

Last note for the day? Some other builders say they’re pleased that they leave the job site as “early” as 11:00 p.m.

The Miners are often wrapped up at 7:00 p.m., 8:00 at the latest…..

The Crane Is Gone; Now It’s Time for the Details

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Enough of the heavy lifting. Now it’s doors, windows, trim and fixtures, details, details, details. Some of the shrubbery, however fake, was even delivered today. Or as team leader Mary Puleo (left) said, “now it’s time for the icing on the cake!”

Here’s where the crew split into simultaneous work teams.
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Two students hung and connected the ceiling fan while others struggled to install the front door frame. Taking a house apart, no matter how perfectly it fit together in Rolla, is guaranteed to be a little, uh, different when it’s time to put it all back together.

It simply isn’t going to be as simple as hoped.

Day #2, and We Have a House!

DSC_2496It’s hard to size up the competition. One house arrived late today, other house lots look like collections of building materials. Next-door neighbor Clemson trucked in a 3,000+-piece 3-D jigsaw puzzle, each piece CNC-machined plywood. Its poured (!) concrete foundation even contains a built-in passive heating and cooling system. Their team is big, they work like crazy, and are obviously excited about their project because they seem to be smiling all the time.

The Miners? From slab foundation to full sized house in less than eight hours. DSC_2128
The “Crane Guys” showed up right at 9:00 a.m. this morning and by lunchtime all three containers were locked down in place.

The afternoon was devoted to “raising the roof,” first swinging in the three upper walls with windows that supply much of the Nest Home’s natural lighting.
The Miners had a full crew inside of the “nest,” waiting for the roof panels to “fly” (sorry!) in. Drop the first roof section, insert a bolt or two to establish alignment, then bring in the next slab while the rest of team scrambles to add and tighten all the remaining fasteners.

This crew wrapped up almost exactly at 5:00 p.m., a far cry from previous S&T solar projects that went round the clock. That’s the sign of excellent design that solves the problem at hand.

Still plenty of work to finish in the coming days. Wiring, plumbing, photovoltaics, and and endless rounds of technical “code” inspections.

DSC_2178But at least our competitors know we have a house. There’s even a welcome mat. Er, welcome chalkboard.