Two Virginia Tech teams received awards from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Design Challenge, made even more difficult this year because students completed their projects and competed remotely after the COVID-19 quarantine forced them to return home.

The Solar Decathlon is a collegiate competition comprising 10 contests that challenge student teams to design and build highly efficient and innovative buildings powered by renewable energy.

“The last two months are super critical, usually requiring quite a few all-nighters. All of this had to be done online,” said Georg Reichard, associate professor of building construction and associate director of research in the Myers-Lawson School of Construction. Reichard and Robert Dunay, director of the Center for Design Research (CDR) in the School of Architecture + Design, co-led the winning project. Reichard has served as faculty for the design-only net zero student competitions since 2015, and Dunay was a lead faculty for three solar decathlon design/build competitions, including the 2010 international competition winner, LumenHAUS.

From 45 finalists in the commercial design category, their Blacksburg-based team of 30 students placed third in the Office Building Division and was awarded an honorable mention for the Eco-Park Learning Center and office complex situated in the Prince William County landfill in Virginia. The competition project was based on earlier CDR research for an interpretive science-technology- engineering-math (STEM) education center and included a major office expansion.

The student team lead, Dominick DeLeone, said that what he learned from working to meet the net-zero energy requirement for last year’s project made it easier to anticipate challenges and effectively manage such a large group online. DeLeone graduated in May 2020 with a master’s degree in building construction science.

“While the online transition certainly impacted our project, we took this hurdle in stride. We had an amazing core group of sub-team leads who were able to keep communication flowing,” said DeLeone. “In the process, we all learned new online collaborative tools and virtual teamwork tricks, which will be valuable as we enter post-COVID industry.”

Eco-Learning Park rendering
Competition rendering of the Eco-Park Learning Center. A Blacksburg-based team of 30 students placed third in the Office Building Division and was awarded an honorable mention for the project, which focused on a future municipal office/education building and community center located in and operated by Prince William County landfill. Rendering by Lucas Kretzing.

An 11-student SOURCE team from Virginia Tech’s Washington-Alexandria Architecture Center garnered the Smooth Operators Industry Engagement Award for its SOlar URban CEnter design to restore, reclaim, and revitalize Alexandria City Hall and Market Square. The team held a series of charettes to seek expertise and advice from 13 design partners in eight local architecture, engineering, and construction agencies and firms and nine design advisors from five VT research centers.  

“Interestingly, Georg Reichard was one of our faculty design advisors even though we were directly competing in the same category,” said Jodi La Coe, visiting assistant professor in architecture and faculty lead for the WAAC team. “I think that is pretty amazing and shows that, even when Hokies compete against each other, we are on the same team!”

Prior to the Solar Decathlon, Yasmin Dambo, student lead for the Alexandria team, had never worked on a team project.

“Our first charette in Alexandria was about coming together to build morale, competence, and a plan of action. I think this inspired us to produce some of our best work and contributed to the success that we achieved as a team,” said Dambo.

“My team had so much initiative, reaching out to each other in smaller group chats and smaller Zoom meetings for further collaboration. One member, back at his home in Japan, had to wake up at 3 a.m. to participate in online meetings,” she said.

The Eco-Park Learning Center was designed as a keystone for Prince William County, fulfilling its vision of utilizing its already award-winning operational landfill to create a nexus for interactive STEM education, community, and professional engagement. The center will house municipal administrators and provide ample space to host school groups, professional meetings, and community events. It also uses cutting-edge waste management technologies of global significance.

The building is constructed with environmentally responsible materials, such as structural cross-laminated timber panels and engineered wood beams/columns, and uses recycled glass as paver blocks, ground filter sand, and as aggregate within sustainable concrete. Efficient building systems and a high-performance enclosure will reduce the building’s emissions over its life-cycle. 

SOURCE student team members
SOURCE student team members. Photo courtesy of Jodi La Coe.
Eco-Park Learning Center student team members
Eco-Park Learning Center student team members. Photo courtesy of Georg Reichard.

The students’ partnership with Prince William County extends beyond the competition. “We have an ongoing contract and deliver project ideas and budgets beyond the Solar Decathlon but the great synergy with this event has allowed us to push further than we would have normally gone,” said Reichard. “Our goal is to support the next steps of the planning process and help the county’s fund-raising efforts.”

The SOURCE team’s resilient design for City Hall and Market Square in Alexandria — built in 1873 with additional construction in the 1960s — needed to comply with historic district design guidelines adopted by City Council in 1993 as well as their 2040 Environmental Action Plan.

The students’ net-energy-positive and LEED Platinum-eligible design exceeds the city’s goals with a renewable energy microgrid of solar energy collection, distribution, and storage capable of both interacting with and being fully independent of the local power grid and underground cisterns in order to remain fully functional during and after a disaster.

In addition to local government officials and administration offices, the renovation allows for additional public spaces to attract residents and visitors to music events, political speeches, parades, rallies, holiday celebrations, and social meetings both in the buildings and in Market Square. 

“Priorities have shifted a bit because of the pandemic, but the City of Alexandria has been exploring the need to renovate City Hall for a number of years and would like to engage with the students to present their work to the City Council and the public,” La Coe said.

The stand-off of finalists in the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge is normally held over an April weekend at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colorado. For this year’s online competition, teams submitted their presentations in several formats including slides, videos, project reports, and key images for the jury to preview prior to the event.

For the live presentations, the students were allowed three minutes to deliver an “elevator pitch,” followed by 10 minutes to answer the jury's questions.

View the winning video presentations for Echo Park Learning Center and SOlar URban CEnter.

– Written by Barbara Micale