Unlimited Opportunities: The Virginia Tech Annual Fund supports extraordinary student experiences
Alden Haley, Corey McCalla, Kevin Smith, and Danny Slover (left to right) are among the dozens of Virginia Tech students getting valuable experience as part of the Solar Decathlon team.
By Albert Raboteau
Students in Virginia Tech's nationally renowned architecture program learn how to design beautiful structures during their five-year course of study. Actually getting their designs built is something that usually does not happen until they are out working in the field.
But for students like Alden Haley and Corey McCalla that is not the case. They are among the dozens of Hokies -- from a variety of programs -- who are getting real-world experience in their fields of study by participating in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2009.
With help from faculty advisers, as well as considerable donor support, the students on Virginia Tech’s Solar Decathlon team are building an 800-square-foot home to showcase new possibilities for environmentally friendly design.
Their structure -- which is named LUMENHAUS in homage to the Bauhaus design movement that influenced its look -- will not only have solar panels on the roof, but a computerized system to maximize energy efficiency and user comfort.
"In school it's pretty uncommon to actually have built a house," says Haley, an Ashland, Va., native who, like McCalla, is heading into his fifth year of the architecture program. "It's a handful of people at most, so this is really special."
McCalla, who is from Rockville, Va., says the Solar House is "definitely the most memorable project and one of the most memorable experiences I've had at Virginia Tech, and in my whole education."
Robert Dunay, the T.A. Carter Professor in Architecture, says that is likely to be the case for lots of students.
"This is probably one of the best educational experiences that they get -- to see the transition between the abstraction of their drawings and calculations and the performance of the actual construction," says Dunay, a faculty adviser to the Solar House team.
Architecture students are not the only ones benefiting from the Solar House project. Kevin Smith of Fairfax, Va., says his experience on the project "really ties in with what I’m going to be doing in my career."
He graduated in May 2009 with a bachelor's in mechanical engineering and will soon start working on energy-use analysis for Southland Industries, a mechanical engineering, construction and service firm that operates nationwide and specializes in government buildings.
Shortly before Palisade, Colo., native Danny Slover graduated with a bachelor's in electrical engineering in May 2009, he said: "I had a job interview last week where I talked about [the project]. It shows your ability to work as a team."
Assistant Professor of Architecture Joe Wheeler, another adviser on the project, says students from his college on the Solar House team learn how to work with suppliers, contractors, engineers, and even marketers, which is something they will have to be able to do well if they ever want to have their own architecture firm.
"The ability to work across disciplines is something that they usually don't see until they are out in the profession, so that is kind of an eye opener for them, to see how a real project really works," Wheeler says.
Christine Burke, of Manassas, Va., is on pace to graduate from Pamplin College of Business with a bachelor's in marketing in December 2009. For students like her, the project is a chance for hands-on experience promoting LUMENHAUS. Students are working in creative ways to publicize the house online, including social marketing through Twitter and Facebook.
"I'm interested in brand management, so it's great working on this project because we’ve actually created a brand," Burke says.
Coming up with a communication plan is part of the overall Solar Decathlon completion, which takes place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Virginia Tech is fielding one of 20 student teams in the Solar Decathlon, which is the most recent in a series of such contests sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy to promote energy efficient construction. Each team will display its entry on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for three weeks in October 2009.
Virginia Tech has a record of Solar Decathlon success. The university's 2005 entry placed fourth overall, but won first place in four categories: best livability, best architecture, best day lighting, and best electric lighting. The 2005 entry also received the American Institute of Architects President's Award for Best House.
In 2010, the Solar Decathlon team will ship LUMENHAUS to Spain to compete in a European version of the contest. Virginia Tech is one of two U.S. universities invited to participate in that contest.
"Extraordinary opportunities such as competing in the United States' as well as the European Union's solar decathlons come about through private philanthropy," says Jack Davis, dean of Virginia Tech's College of Architecture and Urban Studies. "The annual fund is an important component of the funding portfolio for this project in particular, and the college as a whole. Donors enrich our resources to be able to execute important environmental and energy based research at both the undergraduate and graduate level."