Interview: K. Belcher, Team Cali.

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[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.

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[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.

AMNP: Could you describe some of the sustainable / green / recycled materials used in the house?

KB: A lot of teams are using reclaimed materials and recycled materials – but I think one of the things that made our house successful was that there are elements of it that feel very familiar to a home owner, but at the same time we’re using materials in either a new way or with a balance of a kind of modern aesthetic but with familiar materials. We tried to have a simple palette in the house, which keeps the space feeling open. We have elm on the floors, reclaimed from trees with Dutch Elm disease which were headed for the landfill – this company in Canada actually reengineered it into hardwood floor. We absolutely love that tone and texture. We also had bamboo cabinetry that’s all integrated together throughout all the spaces in the house – and stone countertops, which again, countertops are something that everyone has seen, but we were able to integrate it into the cabinetry and into the backsplash in such a way that people were able to say “that’s a creative way of doing that”, while at the same time it isn’t foreign to them, it isn’t sci-fi to them.

In those home furnishing it was a combination of things available on the market and other student designs. We tapped in to another network of designers at the California College of the Arts – we had a textile student upholster the couch with recycled wool he had found; we had fashion design students hang [their original work] in the closets in our bedroom; we had a glass-blowing student do custom fixtures, one on the island and one in the bathroom; a student designed and built the coffee table in the living room; and we had a Master’s of Fine Arts student who does paintings on non-recyclable plastic – little plastic paintings for a tooth brush or something – then she paints these beautiful little painting on them, so we have those framed in the hallway; we have custom ceramics in the house for all the dish-ware, it’s from a clay that’s harvested from SF Bay – they take old wine bottles and crush them, then use that really fine glass as the enamel; we then used that same glass source, and an artist made new glasses from these crushed wine bottles. We tried to approach students in other disciplines, and ask them what sustainability means to them – and what pieces they have that are sustainable and can fit into the larger narrative of this house as an education tool. In doing so the house felt more comfortable, as if someone actually lived there – and that there was a variety of textures and pieces that were just eclectic enough to make the home feel not feel like a showroom. Finding that balance was hard, but I think we were able to do it.

AMNP: So what happens to the house after the Decathlon?

KB: We recently won a grant – the final details are still be worked out – to display the house in front of San Jose city hall, as part of a green building exhibit that the city of San Jose wants to put up. [We’re excited] to show our finished house in California to our friends and family in the area. We’re still working through those details – and then for the final location of the house – there’s a chance that we could be displaying the house in Santiago, Chile, at the US embassy. The US ambassador has expressed an interest in our house, and at displaying it at the embassy. All the details haven’t been worked out, but that’s what’s being discussed.

AMNP: Do you think the house will ever be lived in?

KB: Our intention was to use the house as an education tool, and to put it in environments where we can get the most publicity for what green building can be – showing that you can design a house that isn’t only comfortable and livable, but is also high performing. So for us, that was more important than selling the house to the highest bidder, and letting someone put it on their lake-front property somewhere. We were very conscious of the house feeling like a ‘home’ – being livable – but also working and acting as a public exhibit.

AMNP: As a recent graduate, had you been working on your thesis for the past year while also working on the Decathlon? That sounds insane.

KB: That was a tricky thing for me to overcome personally. Last December I had done the research portion of my thesis – and was interested in my thesis, obviously – but I didn’t want to drop the ball with this Decathlon experience, which had been increasingly taking up my time. I was worried about balancing the two, but was basically convinced to do both. So for a little while last semester I had to step away from working on the details [of the Decathlon] and finish my thesis, and then was back into the Decathlon full-bore in May.

AMNP: How did your role in the project change after graduation – and how were you able to stay on the team?

KB: It was tricky, because a lot of the leaders on the project were graduating in May – and the final construction document drawings were due to the Department of Energy in June. What ended up happening was that a small stipend went to the managers that graduated in May, and they helped run the studio to finish up drawings and then moved into full construction over the summer. So we’re getting a small stipend to work on this project right now. The DOE gives each of the schools $100,000 in grants that are supposed to go towards student salaries over the two years.

AMNP: Could you talk about how the Decathlon experience differed from that of a typical architecture undergrad – and how it changed your view / understanding of architecture?

KB: I was fortunate enough to have a couple of summer internships under my belt before getting into this project, which I think prepared me a little bit – but nothing is really like the experience of doing it all yourself. It was at times a challenge, because a lot of the stuff we’re learning on the fly. In the real world, in our limited experiences working in offices, we weren’t in the positions we were in in the Decathlon – in the sense that in the Decathlon we’re not only the architects and engineers, we’re also the owners, the project managers, and the construction managers. We had to wear many hats, and be able to juggle multiple perspectives on the project at the same time. I think especially the time while we were finishing the construction drawings – and in addition to the construction drawings we had to write a full cost estimate for every part of the house and a full construction specification for everything in the house – it was at that time that we realized that even as undergraduate students and as students with limited experience in the “real world”, that we could do it. There’s this realization that [you need to] jump in, head first, and learn to swim – and I think we showed that you can do it, so it’s been inspiring in that regard.

AMNP: What has been the most exciting part of this experience for you so far?

KB: I’m actually really excited for tonite [Wednesday, Oct. 14th], because tonite is the first time that we actually get to tour all of the other houses. So public tours are closed down, there’s no contest going on tonite, and it’s kind of just an ‘open house’ party with the other 19 teams. The thing I’ve been most excited about, and has been the most pleasing, is touring the other houses – I’ve only been to 3 of the other houses so far -and making friends with the other competitors. We all know just how hard this process was over the past 2 years, and what we had to overcome to get here – so there isn’t really a rivalry like you get in most competitions. At this point the house is what it is, there isn’t much we can do to affect the judging – so people are just kind of hanging out with members of other teams. You go into the other houses and you know these other students have worked so hard, and that their response is completely valid and appropriate response to an 800sf solar powered-house. It’s exciting to see what these other teams have come up with as solutions.

AMNP: Not to put you on the spot, since you haven’t been to all the other homes – but which of the other projects has impressed you the most so far?

KB: Well, I’ll speak to the German house – because that’s the one I’ve spent the most time in other than our house. We ended up being in the same hotel as team Germany, so we got to share a lot of anecdotes with them – they’ve hung out in our house, and we’ve hung out in theirs. I was impressed with their ability to have a whole second story – [they’ve] got a pretty complex spatial arrangement in a small house, in under 800sf, and in talking to them and walking around that space it was clear that theirs was also an appropriate response to the challenge. It’s one of those open-ended tests where there is no one ‘right’ answer. The same with Virginia Tech’s house – I was able to tour theirs, and it was a very efficient floor plan and nice detail in a house so small … and a completely different layout in a house around a core, which was interesting.

AMNP: What are your plans now that the Decathlon is finally finished?

KB: For the immediate future I am going back to San Francisco with a hope of finding a job in Europe. I have a couple of potential offers but I am still trying to figure out all the details.

.:Team California’s Flickr photostream->

.:Team California at DOE Solar Decathlon site->

.:Team California’s ‘Refract House’ website->

AMNP would like to thank Kyle for taking the time to do the interview – and the California College of the Arts for reaching out to us and making the interview possible.

Posted: October 28th, 2009
at 10:39am by orangemenace


Categories: architecture,pre-fab,green arch,housing,student,interview

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