[Image: Kyle Belcher handing out info sheets to Solar Decathlon visitors, via]
Mid-week during this year’s Solar Decathlon AMNP had the opportunity to speak with Kyle Belcher, one of the project managers from Team California. A recent graduate of California College of the Arts, Kyle was involved in varying capacities from inception to the final construction and display of Team California’s solar home – named ‘Refract House‘ – which placed 3rd overall in the Decathlon.
[for images and info on the project itself, visit it's DOE site, Flickr photostream, or marketing website]
ArchitectureMNP: To start things off – could you give us an idea of how the design process worked, and how it differed from a ‘typical’ architecture program / design studio?
Kyle Belcher: With an architecture curriculum, you usually take one project per studio and so we had to be a little bit flexible as you wanted students with a background in the project to continue – but we couldn’t just take all their architecture studio projects away from them just so that they could work on the project. So what ended up happening was that we had a schematic design studio, where 16 students each had an 800 SF solar powered house to design. At mid-terms of that semester an independent panel of architects and engineers critiqued these students, and choose 4 schemes to move forward. Those 16 students then broke up into 4 groups of 4, and at the end of the semester one project was chosen as the direction to go in. I was in that studio and my scheme was one of the 4, but it wasn’t chosen – and I thought that was going to be the end of my Decathlon.
There was then a summer studio elective that took that initial concept and produced a basic drawing set for the department of energy. A couple of days into that studio I actually got a call from the faculty member in charge at that point on the architecture side, and was asked to be his research assistant to help finish that process. So I came in to help lead the student effort on producing those drawings. At the end of that process, we had completed a basic set of about 25 pages – and I was then asked to continue on as on of the project managers. For the rest of the summer we had 4 architecture students that received a stipend to continue working on the Decathlon.
At that point we were working more closely with the engineers [from Santa Clara University], starting to develop the project from the engineering side, talking about what systems we wanted to use. Another architecture studio of 16 new student then helped develop those drawings further, and continued on to construction drawings. Of the 4 students from the end of the summer only 1 was actually in this new studio. The rest stayed on as advisors, taking an elective to help out with logistics – but we weren’t involved in the drawings everyday. That was a little tricky, because in most architecture studios everyone is doing their own proposal, and you don’t really need to work with your peers to share a single vision. In an office, there’s a clear hierarchy of who’s the principal in charge, and where everyone fits on the pay scale. We had to navigate these two things as students.
AMNP: So would you say this was more democratic than an office environment?
KB: Absolutely. Also, unlike an office, there’s not a clear 9-5 schedule everyday where everyone’s in the office for large chunks of time to work on a project. At that point we had to meet more often with the engineers, and their schedules were completely different than the architecture students’ schedules in terms of availability. So a lot of those design meetings had to get pushed off to Saturdays and Sundays, as well as late night phone calls and emails.
At that point there wasn’t simply one architecture student that was handling the details – it wasn’t quite design by committee, but it was 3 or 4 people that were of an equal level talking about design decisions. So it was hard, and it was a learning process – especially working with the engineers that don’t have prior work experience, just like the architecture student. Having to navigate that learning curve both within our own discipline and through dealing with other fields was a major obstacle to overcome.
In the following Spring there was one final studio, with some overlap of students, working on the full set of construction drawings. That ended in May, and then the managers who were graduating ran shop and finished the construction drawings and then led construction. Most construction didn’t start until after May.
AMNP: Could you talk a little about the decision to segment the house and create that courtyard?
KB: When we started the process we looked at precedents of other Decathlons – looking at what had been successful for other teams, and at what may not have worked. We noticed that a lot of the houses are simple ‘bar’ buildings, which have a lot of efficiencies for cross-ventilation, etc – but they were these ‘bar’ building with pitched roofs for solar panels, and that was kind of it. So our rallying cry over the past year has been ‘breaking out of the box’, and seeing how we can not just have 1 or 2 modules, but actually use 3 separate modules to create that courtyard – and because we were limited in square footage, we wanted to make use of exterior space to make the home feel much larger.
AMNP: So then you jumped right into construction at the beginning of the summer?
KB: Finishing up the school year we were a little behind in construction because, like any drawing set, things don’t get done until there are deadlines. The deadline of the end of school, and knowing we were losing a lot of our work force in the class forced us to kick it in gear with the construction drawings – some construction couldn’t be started until those drawings were finished, obviously – so there was one big push the last 3 weeks of May, which were the 3 weeks after graduation, to finish the construction drawings and deliver them to the Department of Energy by June 3rd.
As of the first week of May we only had our steel moment frames up and intact. The construction site being on Santa Clara’s campus, and Santa Clara being in school until the first or second week of June, it proved difficult for both finishing construction drawings and doing full 9-5 construction in Santa Clara.
AMNP: How long did it take to finish construction at Santa Clara – and how much of the construction was completed before the house was shipped to DC?
KB: We only had 6 days to put the house together on the National Mall. Because of that limitation we had to get as far in construction as possible in Santa Clara, except for those things that were site-critical. I say that because we faced some unique challenges with some of the code requirements. We needed the house to be ADA accessible, so we needed ADA ramps – but we didn’t have a true survey of our site, to know what the slope was going to be across the site. We knew where the ramps were going to be, but because of the slopes of the ramps we didn’t know what the finished height of the deck was going to be … [we had to] make sure we were under a 30″ threshold [so that the deck itself wouldn't need guardrails] and could still fit our ramps within the envelope dictated by the Department of Energy. We were pretty nervous. We had all of the ramps built in Santa Clara – we just didn’t know if it was all going to work out until we got to DC. Also the exterior lighting and signage were handled when we got to Washington – but everything else was done in Santa Clara.