Interview: Eric Weber, Coach of Solar Decathlon Second Place Team, UNLV
“We didn’t expect to finish as well as we did,” said Eric Weber, the faculty advisor for the University of Nevada Las Vegas’s Solar Decathlon team. “I didn’t tell the students this, but I was hoping for a top 10 finish, anything above that would be a bonus.”
Instead UNLV placed second, exceeding Weber’s expectations, and besting such engineering powerhouses as Stanford University and the California Institute of Technology. UNLV scored a 947.5 out of 1000, just 4.4 points behind the winner, Team Austria.
The Solar Decathlon is a biannual contest that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive. The U.S. Dept. of Energy sponsors the competition, held this year in Irvine, Calif. The contest ended Oct. 12.
This was UNLV’s first time in the competition, and it faced a fair amount of skepticism, Weber said, including from Richard King, the director of the Solar Decathlon itself. “He made a comment about us when they introduced the teams last January,” Weber said. “He said, ‘they finally got into the competition.’ Well, we only entered once before, so it was a kind of a backhanded compliment. But no one was making comments like that when the results were tallied, and that’s what matters the most.”
Vegas placed well in practically every area of the competition, winning outright for Market Appeal. This gratified Weber. “Because Las Vegas has a nontraditional real estate market we were concerned how well we communicated the particularities of our market to that jury,” he said. “It was a surprise that they really got the house, a really nice surprise.”
UNLV had 45 active team members, whose ages ranged from their early 20s, through their late 40s. This makes sense as UNLV is a non-traditional school, with many non-traditional, i.e. older, students.
I asked Weber what his role was as faculty advisor. He said one thing he brought to the team was that he was the only one there who had actually designed and built a building before, and was able to walk them through the entire process. He also would review the students’ plans to ensure their drawings were in compliance with building codes, that the house was on schedule, and competition-ready.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. For starters, many of the students had no practical experience with the actual tools needed to build the home, such as hammers, and nails. (They were quite familiar with design programs, however.)
Another obstacle was that due to some bureaucratic snafus construction of the home couldn’t start as early as Weber had wanted, leading to a compressed build schedule. Also, the design of the home’s chassis was much more involved than the project’s engineering students initially realized, leading to would-be fabricator of the chassis to back out. This cost the team three months’ worth of time, which proved hard to make up. “There was a steep learning curve for the team,” he said.
But overall, Weber’s pleased with the results. Specifically, the quality of living space in the home was much higher than he expected, with great acoustics inside the house. This latter point is surprisingly important, he said, as a sterile sounding home can turn buyers off.
Other high points: a student-built bench outside the home was well done, and the judges noticed. Also a student-crafted shelving unit turned out quite well. “Things like that turned out better than expected, and it’s also nice that people noticed it,” he said.