Traci Sooter’s excitement is contagious over the phone as she watches a crew unload the contents of three semi-trailer trucks in a massive parking lot in Irvine, California. Together, the team of contractors and college students will carefully re-construct ShelteR3, a tornado-resistant, solar-powered house built for the US Solar Decathlon competition.
Officially ShelteR3’s creation began two years ago as a collaboration between Drury University in Springfield, Mo., and Crowder College, 70 miles away in Neosho, Mo. Yet many would say its concept began in May 2011 when an EF-5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., killing 161 and generating three million cubic yards of waste. Crowder College noticed Drury’s extensive efforts in Joplin’s recovery, including the students’ work in ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and the creation of the Butterfly Garden Memorial Park in Joplin.
A Beneficial Partnership
As a community college renowned for solar engineering expertise, Crowder College competed twice in the Solar Decathlon prior to this year with success in energy balance, lighting and home business. They sought to partner with Drury because they wanted to tap into Drury’s liberal arts background, especially its strengths in building design and communications, explained Sooter, who is professor of architecture at Drury’s Hammons School of Architecture and faculty project manager of the Solar Decathlon team.
The collaboration’s result – ShelteR3 (the R’s stand for Respond, Recover, Resist) – is a modular home built to withstand the debris cloud and wind pressure of an EF-5 tornado. It has an extra thick wooden frame surrounded by a steel chassis that anchors the roof to the foundation and three distinct layers of shielding. Other features include Miami-Dade hurricane rated windows and doors and custom-designed storm doors constructed of bulletproof Lexan. The solar power allows the house to generate 14kW of electricity, which is more than enough to run a small water heater, central air conditioning, several lights, a computer, TV, and a refrigerator. The home has one area for sleeping and another for a kitchen and bathroom. (The house has water tanks for storage, waste water and fire suppression, too.) Post-disaster, two modules can be used as temporary housing for a family or recovery workers. For extended living, a third area goes between the two units to provide a living room. Watch a video walkthrough of the house.
The Solar Decathlon team included more than 100 students from 22 majors, including not-so-obvious backgrounds such as art history and nursing. The multidisciplinary team considered every aspect of living in a home, and the nursing student gave valuable input into using ShelteR3 as both a home and a base for emergency response teams. Looking at ShelteR3 from every possible angle was important as the Solar Decathlon features ten contests. Emma Reynolds, a 2015 Drury graduate with a degree in art history and arts administration, will lead two of them. During the Home Life contest, she will prove that ShelteR3 could be a home, including playing host for two dinner parties and a movie night. She will also lead the Commuting Contest, in which the team must drive an electric vehicle in a 25-mile loop after charging it with ShelteR3’s electric system. Reynolds also curated artwork – photography from a Drury professor and paintings from a Drury student – that hangs on ShelteR3’s walls.
Alumni were involved also. Upon hearing about ShelteR3, an alumnus who owns a trucking company offered to haul the solar-powered home 1,800 miles to Irvine and back. Another alumnus with an interior design company staged the living room after its reconstruction in Irvine.
Problem-Solving for the Real World
Sooter has 16 years of experience working with Drury students in the Design/Build program, which helps charities and communities in need. Drury’s smaller size means she is always encouraged to pursue these projects, even if that requires a course load reduction this semester to spend a month in Irvine. Ultimately, she finds some of the best student learning takes place outside of the classroom.
“They truly understand the lines they’ve made on a piece of paper. The great day is when they find out it doesn’t work, so then they have to resolve that through problem-solving,” said Sooter. “What I’ve found is that architecture students will carry that experience with them throughout their careers and go back to those moments as they are designing in a firm.”
For Evan Melgren, a 2015 advertising and public relations graduate from Drury, his work with the Solar Decathlon team literally led to a job opportunity. After Melgren mastered a challenging architectural software program, Sooter mentioned him to a construction company at a conference. Killian Research Construction soon hired Melgren. His work with the Solar Decathlon team is not finished, however, as he is seeing the project through as the communications lead. His challenges have run the gamut from translating design-speak into layman’s terms to building a website and social media presence that will be measured as part of the competition.
As Melgren found himself spending increasing amounts of time on the project over the last two years, he asked himself why he kept coming back to it.
“At the very core of it, it’s something I can get behind. Solar energy – and alternative energy in general – is something that everybody needs to care about,” said Melgren.
The Final Stretch
ShelteR3 arrived in Irvine in late September. The Solar Decathlon runs from October 8 to 18. Only five team members – four professors and one student – are there for the total duration. The rest, including 33 Drury students and recent alumni, will come in waves with students either re-constructing the house, providing tours of the house or leading one of the ten contests.
Will anyone live in this version of ShelteR3? Perhaps. A buyer in Joplin has already purchased it.