Solar Decathlon
UNM graduate architecture student Victoria Miller in China.

When the University of New Mexico School of Architecture and Planning and School of Engineering teamed up with their counterparts at Arizona State University to compete in the Solar Decathlon, they knew challenges would arise by having participants in two states and the competition in yet another.

“It was a big learning experience to figure out how two architecture schools and two engineering schools within larger institutions can collaborate,” said Kristina Yu, UNM assistant professor of architecture.

The Solar Decathlon was also an opportunity to interview and study other teams. “Each team understood its own discipline, but there were increased complexities working across architecture and engineering arenas,” she said.

The Department of Energy, a Solar Decathlon sponsor, required an educational component. The UNM team visited Germany, Spain and China to understand global ways that students can integrate their work in the design, construction and assembly of a fully powered house on the site of the competition.

“We had generous support from the Office of the Vice President for Research as well as the School of Architecture and Planning,” Yu said, noting that the travel gave the group the opportunity to expand upon the initial scope of research.

“We visited different leading organizations in each country. We visited seven global architectural and engineering firms in Shanghai and Beijing, guiding us through their work in China and Asia. We got to see firsthand how to engage technology and buildings in a fast-paced economy. It appears as though buildings and cities go up overnight,” Yu said. Aiding them were three UNM engineering students who spoke Chinese. 

UNM Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Olga Lavrova was the engineering professor for the UNM team. When they prepared to go to China, it was an inclusive adventure with ACE Leadership High School, an Albuquerque charter school. “ACE” stands for architecture, construction and engineering.

Yu said, “We have several mentoring projects through the decathlon process, going on field trips and visiting sponsors, creating shadow projects together.  Four students and their teacher, Daniel Wolfskehl – who had previous work experience in China – were able to travel with us to China.” She added that the younger students were full participants and engaged in the research and interviewing in China.

In addition to the ACE students, Yu and Lavrova worked with UNM Taos, which has a dual enrollment program with the area high schools. “Over 40 students took part by visiting with the Solar Decathlon project while traveling to UNM, with 10 more students who traveled with the team to Irvine, California, to root for team ASUNM,” Yu said.

The students and professors traveled to Europe and visited with the European Solar Decathlon champion German teams. The team also visited Madrid, Spain, the site of the European Solar Decathlon 2012. “Through these and other experiences, we are made keenly aware of the value and competitive success of integrating architecture with engineering,” Yu said.

Yu said that the students learned to “play upon the strengths of their own university.” Engaging so many Solar Decathlon teams helped the UNM group understand how to pull the complex process together,” Yu said.

Students who expressed interest in working in Spain, Germany or China were encouraged to bring their resumes and portfolios. “One student received a full position internship, as a result.  We are awaiting more direct outcomes like this in the coming months as more students matriculate from this project and degree,” Yu said.  

The students all learned that they live in a global environment. “Firms can’t and don’t work in isolation.  Students who have international experience will be highly desired leaders,” Yu said.

Arizona State University had the connections to run with the house project. “ASU developed a partnership with Accelerated Construction Technologies (ACT), a Phoenix design build commercial contractor. It was ideal to work with a builder the first time out in the decathlon. They provided construction leadership, technology, labor and certifications,” Kristina Yu, assistant professor of architecture, said.

The process allowed the UNM architecture and engineering students the opportunity to learn, “Students were integral to the process, but ACT provided several figures worth of goods and services, amongst other generous sponsors, too,” Yu said.

“UNM students grasp how to pitch in.  There agility for a complex project with clear goals has taught them resourceful ways to act and coordinate.  We have clear and tangible connections with solid interest from the NM community of solar related organizations,” she said.  She added,  “We hope that the School of Architecture and Planning can reconnect with these leaders after the competition to build upon the relationships to bring many of the Solar Decathlon lessons back home to New Mexico.”