Spotlight on: R I S ☰, Berkeley’s Solar Decathlon Team

“I think something that’s really important to us is our story.”

— Ruth McGee, R I S ☰ Project Manager

Every two years, collegiate teams from across the nation gather to participate in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. Launched in 2002, the competition challenges teams to design, build, and operate a full-scale, solar-powered home centered on energy-efficient principles and innovative design technologies. True to its name, the challenge involves ten contests, which evaluate areas ranging from cost-effective design and market potential to energy production and the house’s function as a livable home. The next competition will take place in October 2017 — and, for the first time, UC Berkeley will be among the 14 teams showcasing a fully functional product at the event.

As it enters the competition, Berkeley’s team, which calls itself R I S ☰, will be bringing a distinctly Bay Area perspective with it. The Solar Decathlon requires each team to address issues specific to its location, prompting students to expand their awareness of their own environments. For R I S ☰, the story that has shaped their design process is rooted in the needs of Berkeley’s surrounding communities.

Aligning with UC Berkeley’s commitment to public service and innovative social impact, R I S ☰ hopes to combat the challenges associated with overcrowding and environmental issues by creating a sustainable, net-zero home designed specifically for the densely populated areas of Richmond. “We are trying to build for Richmond and genuinely care about their needs — and we are hoping to leave a lasting and sustainable impact,” says R I S ☰ project manager Ruth McGee, a third-year civil and environmental engineering student. It’s an ambitious challenge: unlike teams that have previously participated in the Solar Decathlon, R I S ☰ is taking on the competition as an upstart, with no history of Berkeley entries to draw upon.

R I S ☰ began as a self-initiated project after cofounders Brenton Krieger and Sam Durkin first heard about the Solar Decathlon competition while attending an Engineers for a Sustainable World conference two years ago. “We were in our sophomore year and hadn’t had many practical experiences yet. We thought it would be a fulfilling and interesting experience to take on. Little did we know how much work it would be, and how much it would shape our career paths,” says Krieger, now in his fourth year in civil engineering. Without any previous structures or examples to reference, one of R I S ☰’s main challenges has been learning how to build from the ground up. Third-year civil engineering student Joan Gibbons, the team’s construction project manager, explains, “We’re coming from a different standpoint of starting as a team, raising our own funds…we’ve been learning a lot as we go.”

Though R I S ☰ may be starting new, they see that not as a disadvantage, but as an opportunity to take initiative, get creative, and leverage the larger community. This energy has been particularly important as they’ve delved into the technical requirements of solar house design, gaining a breadth of new knowledge and skills. Nicolai Sponholtz, a second-year student on the water team, gives an example of this complexity, noting, “Being on the water team, one of the biggest challenges is learning about the different kinds of plumbing systems you can have in a house — what’s the most sustainable, what functions the best, and what’s going to cost the least.” Alexander Sundt, a third-year electrical engineering and computer sciences student and the team’s electrical team head, adds, “You can design a system theoretically, but as for the logistics in how its it’s implemented, there’s not a lot of information I could find — which has been an unexpected difficulty.”

R I S ☰ has addressed this challenge by connecting with a rich local ecosystem, linking their members with experts at Berkeley and in the broader Bay Area. “We’ve reached out to people in various industries and they’ve been very helpful in getting us on board,” says Sundt. Guests come in once a week to speak to the team about sustainable design practices, on topics ranging from solar installation techniques to the benefits of wool insulation in homes.

Today, R I S ☰ is the largest it’s ever been, with roughly 40 members whose academic focuses include civil and environmental engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, architecture, environmental design, marketing, legal studies, economics, business, and more. This diverse team is split into seven sub-teams: landscaping, architecture, structure, project management, water, solar, and electrical. Each week, the entire team gets together to check in on their current status, see what the other teams have been up to, and address the next steps for the project. This structure helps each team work in concert as the design process unfolds. “[It’s a] workshop-structured meeting, where all the teams are in the same space at the same time and questions can be answered easily,” notes Joan Gibbons. “What you’re designing doesn’t affect just your system, but all of them intertwined.”

A cross-functional structure allows team members to analyze problems with diverse perspectives and to formulate solutions collaboratively, a pivotal component of the design process. This often results in productive iteration: “As soon as you think that one design would work properly, you talk to the architecture team and have to go back to the drawing board,” says Nicolai Sponholtz. In this way, team members not only gain hands-on experience applying concepts from their respective fields, but also seek to gain a holistic understanding of the project’s components. “A fun aspect of the competition is how wide a range of knowledge each of us get, just by being exposed to other team members,” notes Sam Durkin. “I wouldn’t know as much about architecture, or the electrical systems, if it weren’t for them being a part of the team.”

The experience has provided team members with broadly applicable lessons in effective collaboration. Reflecting on R I S ☰’s growth over the past two years, Brenton Krieger observes, “It’s been interesting being here since the beginning, and trying out so many iterations of [team] structures that have worked and that haven’t. I’m really happy with how it is now and how collaborative it is.” He observes that recognizing each other’s areas of expertise and learning to facilitate cross-team interactions, while challenging, has been central to the team’s success. Gibbons adds, “It’s been such a unique opportunity. It’s not just hands-on experience in one aspect of engineering — it’s hands-on experience doing an entire project that incorporates business, marketing, design, architecture.”

This interdisciplinary process has led R I S ☰ to a modular, flexible design that leverages passive technology and is meant to be “ready for real people in the real world.” Asked about their current progress, Durkin explains, “We now have our design solidified. What we’re working on right now is what products are going to be in our home and how they’re going to be integrated on a full scale.” Shifting to R I S ☰’s current positioning as an organization, he continues, “We’re [also] looking to increase the size of the team. We’ve added a student-taught class at Jacobs Hall, now probably at about 40 students, which has been great, and are branching out into a bunch of different disciplines.” As they move toward their next major phase leading up to the competition — building the house at the Richmond site — the team is focusing on meaningful engagement with the Richmond community. “We’re involving Richmond schools. We’re actually starting an after-school class for Richmond students in high school, in their engineering academy, to learn about their current needs. We met with the mayor’s office in Richmond, too,” says Ruth McGee.

Rooted in this focus on connecting with community, the team hopes to build a sustainable foundation for ongoing work on smart energy practices, in Richmond and on campus. They also hope that they will be the first of many Solar Decathlon teams at Berkeley. “I’d like to make an impact on this team and let it further grow after this competition,” says Alex Sundt. As I speak to other team members, it’s clear that this eye on the future is a shared motivation. “What’s been the most rewarding part of participating in Solar Decathlon?,” I ask. “Well,” answers McGee, “I think it’s still to come.”

Learn more about RIShere.

By Kirra Dickinson