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In the midst of the 18-hour days spent building a house under the hot African sun, Colorado School of Mines students got to partake in a special Moroccan tradition.
Twice a day, once in the late morning and again in the late afternoon, the students were served Moroccan mint hot tea and bread with apricot jam and olive oil.
“Everybody got really excited, dropped what they were doing and made a beeline for the tea,” said Christian Amundson, a junior who is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. “During those breaks, everybody on our job site shared those moments together.”
Amundson is one of the students in a group from Mines who competed in the Solar Decathlon AFRICA — an international collegiate competition that challenges student teams to design, build and operate a full-sized, solar-powered home in a five-week time period.
Competing against 17 other teams consisting of university students from around the world, the Mines students and their Moroccan teammates ended up winning the Solar Decathlon AFRICA.
“It was a difficult trip, but the students persevered and won,” said Tim Ohno, an associate professor in Mines’ physics department who served as the lead faculty adviser for the Solar Decathlon AFRICA. He added that the win was unexpected. “Even if we would have just finished building the house, I would have been very proud.”
Mines was accepted to compete in the Solar Decathlon AFRICA in March 2018. Naming the InterHouse, about 30 Mines students worked on the planning and design of the home they would enter in the competition. They partnered with about 45 students from two different universities in Morocco. Seven of the Mines students traveled to Morocco in August to begin construction of the home. They had three weeks to build it prior to the two weeks of competition on Sept. 13-27.
Judging was in 10 separate events — assessing the home’s architecture, engineering and construction, market appeal, social awareness, appliances, livability, sustainability, health and comfort, energy balance and innovation.
The house the Mines students and their Moroccan partners built is U-shaped with a courtyard and carport totaling about 1,000 square feet. It has two bedrooms, one bathroom, kitchen, utility room and living space.
The concept was to blend traditional Moroccan-style architecture and interior furnishings with modern technology, said Katie Schneider, a graduate student at Mines who served as the InterHouse’s lead project manager.
Schneider was unable to travel to Morocco, but assisted her teammates in Africa as the on-campus point-of-contact and kept the greater Mines community in-the-loop with updates on the competition.
The InterHouse is energy self-sufficient and uses a smart house system, meaning it has sensors that measure temperature, humidity, indoor air quality and some lighting, Schneider said. It is powered entirely solar energy — using batteries from a Nissan Leaf electric car to store its energy.
The battery unit and the home’s custom HVAC system were shipped to Morocco. Other building materials, such as the compressed, stabilized earth bricks, which are similar to adobe, used to construct the home were sourced in Morocco.
Now that the competition is over, the site of the 18 homes built for the Solar Decathlon AFRICA will likely be developed into a smart green village, Ohno said. They may become private residences, but more likely, they will serve as model homes and/or for research purposes.
Lucy Davis, a senior studying civil engineering at Mines, got involved with the project from the beginning with Mines’ tiny home when she was a freshman. She was the co-project manager and the main structural designer for the InterHouse and was one of the seven Mines students who traveled to Morocco for the competition.
Davis said she learned a lot about her own leadership and problem-solving skills, as well as making a few new lifelong friendships during the course of working on the project.
All of the work on both the tiny home and the InterHouse was completely voluntary and extracurricular — no school credit was earned for involvement with either project.
“It goes way beyond school. Everyone went out of their way to learn something new to contribute to the project,” Davis said. “I liked having a bigger purpose than just going to class.”
This year is the first for Africa to put on a solar decathlon, and it is the first time for Mines students to compete in any solar decathlon. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon got its start in 2002 and has taken place biennially in various U.S. cities. It took place in Denver in 2017. Although Mines did not compete, students took their tiny home to display at the Sustainability Expo part of the Solar Decathlon in Denver.
Mines had planned on competing in the U.S. Solar decathlon next year, Ohno said. However, because a number of the students who had been working on the project for years, beginning with the tiny home, were graduating, it was decided to compete in the Solar Decathlon AFRICA this year, Ohno said.
There were a lot of firsts with this competition, Amundson said, and with that came a lot of uncertainty and challenges.
“But overall, it made for a great experience,” Amundson said.
“Doing something of this scale is such an accomplishment,” Schneider said. “But we knew how much of an impact we could make. It feels really good to know all the hard work we put into it paid off.”
Schneider began working on the project with the tiny home four-and-a-half years ago during the entire time she was working on her undergraduate degree in physics.
“It’s bittersweet to finish it. It surely defines my time here at Mines,” Schneider said, adding she will be graduating with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering in May 2020. “I’ll always remember it and I hope it inspires other students to take on large, extracurricular projects.”
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