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Living Curiously

Living CuriouslyThe Tufts and Boston Architectural College students on the Solar Decathlon team combine engineering know-how with aesthetic flair and policy savvy.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.09.09] Curiosity may have killed the cat, but for Boston's Solar Decathlon team, made up of students from Tufts and the Boston Architectural College (BAC), it has been more like the life force.

The team's love of learning and willingness to explore novel connections have kept them going for the past two years as they've built Curio House, a solar-powered home. On Sept. 28, they finally loaded that project onto a truck and headed to Washington, D.C., ready to compete against 19 other teams from around the globe. The house will be displayed on the Mall in Washington, D.C., until Oct. 19.

Developed by the U.S. Department of Energy in 2002, the Solar Decathlon challenge is intended to educate participants and the general public about the benefits of renewable energy and energy efficiency. It consists of 10 contests, and the winner is the team that creates the best balance between aesthetics and efficiency.

"The most gratifying part of this experience will be seeing the house running and fully functional in D.C.," says Ross Trethewey (E'07, G'10), a graduate student in mechanical engineering at Tufts. "The project is something we have all built from scratch through brainstorming coming up with the right fit, so it will be great to see it all come together."

Changing Directions

This year's Solar Decathalon is not the first for the students at BAC, who paired up with MIT in 2007. Kevin Horne, a BAC graduate student in architecture, says his team decided they wanted to take another stab at the competition, starting from the ground up.

"After our first experience on the Mall, we saw that there was a lot of focus on the technological portion of the competition," Horne says. "We decided we wanted to have another go at the competition with a broader focus on sustainability, creating a balance between economy, equity and the environment."

Trethewey gives a video tour of the many different components that make up the Curio House. 

When they began looking for schools to partner with, Tufts seemed to be the "perfect fit" because of its strengths in both engineering and policymaking, he says.

A Melting Pot of Experience

Among the key players on "Team Boston" were students from Tufts' Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning (UEP) program and The Fletcher School. Five of the project's seven directors came from the BAC; the other two were Matt Thoms (E'10), an undergraduate in Tufts' School of Engineering, and graduate student Benjamin Steinberg (G'10) of UEP.

"One group of Fletcher and UEP students interviewed people from Habitat for Humanity, while others did focus groups with various community organizations that deal with problems of affordable housing," says William Moomaw, professor of international environmental policy at The Fletcher School and principal investigator on the Solar Decathlon project for Tufts. According to Moomaw, the challenge was to "use renewable energy to make a house that would function in the Northeast," while also adhering to the social, environmental and engineering sustainability goals they had set for the project.

Moomaw shares his thoughts on sustainability and the Solar Decathlon 

Moomaw was assisted in his supervisory role on the team by Professor Vincent Manno, associate provost of the School of Engineering, and Antje Danielson, program manager of Tufts Institute for the Environment. The team also had 16 advisors from various fields, including designers, structural engineers and experts in solar technology.

Creating an Identity

Curio House got its name partly from its shape, which is similar to that of a "curio box"-a box with many compartments used to display knick-knacks. But just as significant, the team notes that "curio" is the root of the word "curious."

"We were working with a design group, and I remember we were talking with them about coming up with an identity for the project and nothing was sticking," Horne says. "Then they said, 'We've been watching you guys for about six months here and we have realized that this project has nothing to do with the house, but everything to do with who you are and what your mission is, and the house has been a result of that. Since the beginning you have always had a high level of curiosity and learning.'"

Horne adds, "Our next meeting they came back with the idea, and as soon as we had our identity, our vision changed to the idea of empowering and inspiring people to be sustainable, not necessarily to build a house for the Mall."

Meeting of the Minds

Trethewey says one of the most valuable aspects of the project has been the interaction between the two schools.

"It has been a meeting of two minds that are like night and day," he says. "Architects have one way of thinking, and engineers are the complete opposite, so it can be fun, interesting and difficult at some times to get us to see eye to eye."

He adds, "It simulates real world interactions. In the real world, you don't have a problem set where you make a number of assumptions, you do the problem and get the answer right or wrong. In the real world, it's about communication between architects and engineers to design a house that's going to perform well and suit the homeowner."

Shared Knowledge

For both Trethewey and Horne, who have experience in the professional world, working with the undergraduate students at Tufts has been highly rewarding.

"I saw myself as a mentor to the undergrads in a way, because I'm not only in grad school, but I've also worked and designed these systems for my job," Trethewey says. "So I wasn't only trying to design the systems but also trying to teach them things that I've learned in my past internships and jobs."

"At my ripe old age of 29, I'm completely jaded, and I'm a little less utopian than I used to be," Horne says with a laugh. "It was very nice to be working with somewhat younger students who were definitely instilled with a lot of passion and a lot of drive for what they were doing."

He adds, "Sharing ideas with them was fantastic, and to be working side by side with students who will be reinventing these ideas tomorrow, that was a great experience."

Story and Moomaw video by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications. Trethewey video by Steve Breck of Tufts' Educational Media Center. 

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