A Watershed Experience

I never expected to work with the winning team of the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon for my first summer internship. The Solar Decathlon is a competition to design and build innovative, carbon neutral, and affordable homes. This year marked the fifth anniversary of the Solar Decathlon, which was first held in 2002. Once completed, the houses are taken apart and transported to Washington, D.C. where they are reassembled and showcased on the National Mall for several weeks.  Tens of thousands of visitors tour and critique the houses, experiencing a “green” house first-hand. Judges tour the houses and rank them according to ten criteria, including market appeal, architecture, and engineering. This fall, University of Maryland’s Watershed house received a cumulative score of 951.151 out of 1,000 points, the highest score out of nineteen college teams, with entries from as far away as New Zealand and China.  

I first learned about the Watershed house from Bill Wiley, the coordinator of science research at The Potomac School in McLean, Virginia, where I am currently a junior.  By the time summer came around, there were nine of us who signed up to work on the house during the summer. On my first day of work in early July, I met some members of Maryland’s multi-talented team.  Most of the University students had been working on the house in some way or another for two years, coming from a variety of majors and graduate programs including architecture, civil engineering and environmental science.  They chose to name the house “Watershed” because it evokes the natural sustainability of the Chesapeake Bay region.  

Working on the Solar Decathlon with the University of Maryland over the summer was truly eye-opening for me.  I had no clue how much planning, knowledge, and effort went in to building a house!  I had never thought about the design of a house and the idea of a greater purpose.  I never thought about what the underside of a house or the inside of an electrical outlet looked like, but I learned the answers to these questions first-hand through working on this fascinating project.  This experience opened my mind to ideas.  Among other things, my high school classmates and I worked with them to haul “green roof” modules onto the sloped roof and create display boxes for fresh produce.  Some of our other jobs included installing wiring and sanding and staining the wood that became siding for the house.  We inadvertently decorated our T-shirts with stripes of wood stain in the process.  Every day, there were exciting new elements of the house to see – the most memorable were the funky solar hot water tubes and the much-appreciated air conditioning.

In the two months after I finished working on the project, the Maryland team made the finishing touches and moved Watershed to the Solar Decathlon grounds near the Tidal Basin and the National Mall in D.C.  When I saw the house a week or so later, there was a satisfyingly long line of curious visitors waiting to get inside.  Seeing the finished houses this fall was fantastic.  It was thrilling to walk on the Watershed deck that I helped sand and stain.  During one of my visits, I watched the judges assessing the nineteen houses.  As I looked on, the Maryland team was thrilled to hear that Watershed was in the lead.  However, throughout the judging process, rankings constantly change as the judges made their rounds, and every team presented an impressive house that attracted huge crowds.   Needless to say, I was incredibly excited when the final competition results came in—it was really wonderful to see the words “University of Maryland” next to the big number 1 on the scoreboard.

I’m ecstatic that Watershed has won and I know that the team deserves it! In my view, the best parts of the Solar Decathlon project are that it challenges college (and sometimes high school!) students to embrace a green future and to develop leadership and teamwork, and then to share their work on an international stage.  I am extremely lucky to have been able to work with the University of Maryland students, and it feels great to know that my friends and I helped them to bring Watershed to life. 

Caroline Resor

High School Junior

See Also - Earth Day Network to Supply Official Curriculum of the U.S.Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2011