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Cornell's Silo House finishes seventh at Solar Decathlon

Cornell's 2009 Solar Decathlon Team completed two years of effort on its innovative Silo House with a seventh-place finish out of 20 international entries on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Team Germany successfully defended its 2007 title in the biennial Department of Energy-sponsored competition. Winners and final standings were announced this morning, after engineering judging and net metering were completed.

"There were no mistakes in this competition; we just didn't have the house to win it," team leader Christopher Werner, M.Arch. '09, said. "But we wouldn't have done anything differently."

Cornell ranked as high as second place overall in the first few days of judging, which began Oct. 8, and remained in fifth place last weekend. Cornell was ranked sixth from Monday through Wednesday and slipped to seventh place Thursday morning.

The team's highest finish in an individual category was a second-place showing in Communications, with 66.75 out of 75 points. That contest included such criteria as Web site content quality and originality, information presentation including on-site displays, branding, and innovation of methods to engage audiences.

The house took 16th place in Architecture, a contest the team had expected its unusual design -- three circular modules clad in rust-covered corrugated steel -- to be competitive in.

"It was quite a surprise to us, and to the public as well," said Natalie Pierro, B.Arch. '09. "We've had a number of people come to the house and say they were shocked. It was such an innovative design; either you hate it or you love it."

Werner said: "We built a risky house. There hasn't really ever been a house like this in the Decathlon, but we didn't end up doing as well in the subjective contests."

Expert jurors in the five subjective contest categories -- architecture, market viability, lighting design, engineering and communications -- consider features that measurements cannot evaluate, such as aesthetics and design inspiration. The objective contests are hot water, comfort zone, appliances, home entertainment and net metering.

"One of the biggest positives of the whole experience is learning from our mistakes two years ago, and we really learned how to organize ourselves," Pierro said. "Overall we have a really great dynamic as a team, between architecture and engineering and all the other disciplines involved."

Cornell finished in second place overall in the 2005 Decathlon and placed 19th in 2007.

"Two years ago we came down with an incomplete house," said Werner, also a member of the 2007 team. "This year it was all tested and commissioned and we set it to launch."

The 2009 team's strategy included a monthlong test run in August and September at the State Fairgrounds in Syracuse, including two weeks of public tours during the fair. The team tested systems, worked out transportation and other details, and honed ways to explain the house and its features to visitors.

"We continued to improve the house and test it after the State Fair," Werner said.

Pierro added: "It also gave us the opportunity to go back and architecturally perfect the details of the house. It was great not only to see the finished product but to have it truly represent our craft and our ideas."

Most of Cornell's 150 student and alumni Solar Decathlon team members came to Washington at least once during this year's competition. "It's been a good experience for us, for the students and the alumni," Werner said.

Pierro said: "We're just glad to be part of the experience, and placing seventh overall isn't that bad. It doesn't feel like a defeat because regardless, we are proud of what we've produced."

The Silo House garnered widespread media attention before and during the Decathlon, including coverage in Scientific American, The New York Times, Popular Mechanics, CNET (which mentioned U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu's visit to the house Oct. 8) and the front page of the Washington Post's Real Estate section.

"Cornell University's house stands apart from the other entries with its agrarian-looking design … intended to reference the grain silos on upstate New York farms," the Post article said.

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Blaine Friedlander