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Solar Roof Pod Volunteers Learn Skills Not Taught in Class

Francisco Arias
Farah Ahmad
Yinery Baez

Yinery Baez, a fourth-year architecture student in the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture at The City College of New York, never gave much thought to screws.  However, as project manager for the interior of the Solar Roof Pod, CCNY’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, specifying cabinet hardware is one of her many responsibilities.

“Many of the issues we face we never experienced in the classroom,” the Glendale, Queens, resident said.  “Little details like the type of screws used, for example.  For the cabinets, we produced over 50 drawings so they would have a sure fit.  In purchasing hardware for furniture, we had to make sure it would support the weight load.”

More than 100 students from the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture and Grove School of Engineering are members of Team New York, CCNY’s entry.  For almost 18 months, they have been designing and building the Solar Roof Pod, a solar-powered house specifically designed for installation atop urban commercial, institutional or residential buildings.

At least five days a week, they work on the project at a rooftop construction site on the plaza level of CCNY’s Marshak Science Building, where is it visible to campus visitors. After it is finished, the two main modules and other components of the Solar Roof Pod will be will be transported to Washington, D.C., in September. There, Team New York will reassemble, operate and open it to visitors on the National Mall for judging in the ten categories of the Solar Decathlon.

By working on the project, students are learning many skills not taught in the classroom or studio beyond picking the right screws.  They include attention to detail, problem solving, project management, team leadership, safety and communication.  Students say they hope the skills they pick up on the project give them a competitive edge when they enter the workforce after graduation.

“This project is important to how we teach students,” said Associate Professor of Architecture Christian Volkmann, one of the team’s faculty advisors. “They pick up skills related to detailing and construction technology as well as interdisciplinary work and coordination in a much better way.”

“Student are not only gaining the experience of building a house, but have an opportunity to be part of something larger that could help the environment,” said Dr. Jorge Gonzalez, a professor of mechanical engineering who is also a faculty advisor. “Most of the students working on the project are driven by these higher ideals.”

“We’re learning a lot more about building a house than you could from a text book,” noted Farah Ahmad, a fourth-year architecture student from Staten Island who is one of the team leaders. “There are so many layers to construction and all systems have to work together.  It requires a lot of coordination because one mistake could mess up everything.”

As an aspiring architect, Farah has come to understand the importance of getting involved with the construction process.  “You need to understand how engineering and construction work, because design details need to be integrated with construction management.  You need to know which materials are strong, cost-effective and work well.  If you understand the process by which things are assembled, it will really help you.”

“So many things come up during construction that have to be addressed ranging from logistics to communication,” added Juan Luengas, a senior mechanical engineering major from Elmhurst, Queens.  “It’s a learning process.  You’ve got to think differently.”

In the classroom, students work on ideal cases that present theory.  “You might be assigned four or five projects; all theoretical,” said Francisco Arias, a senior environmental engineering major who is also from Elmhurst.   “You’ll present a solution to the problem, but you don’t put into place.  Working on the Solar Roof Pod, you get to see the results.  You actually build a house.”

Francisco is performing analyses to ensure the Solar Roof Pod’s heating and cooling system will achieve net zero energy use balance.  The work will be credited toward his senior capstone design class.   By conducting extreme weather condition analyses, he will determine how well the system functions during heat waves and cold freezes.

In a project as complex as building the Solar Roof Pod, conflict is inevitable.  Learning how to resolve conflicts has been another important lesson for Team New York members.

“In the studio, everyone is very competitive.  Here, we have to work as a team,” Yinery explained.  “If we disagree, say, on a drawing, we draw it out together.   We try not to let it get personal.  If it does, we talk it out and move on.”

Another challenge is getting architects and engineers to interact. “They are two different professions with different perspectives and that can be a problem.  You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.”

One lesson carried from the classroom to the construction site is the need for clarity.  “Our teachers told us you have to be clear about what you want.  Here you see why: so anyone can read your drawings and see what you are doing,” said Juan.  This is especially critical when interacting with vendors’ representatives, he added.

The network of vendors and contractors who are aiding the Solar Roof Pod project are providing valuable lessons, as well.  For example, the professional steel company that helped erect the framing showed the students fast methods for proper installation, Farah said.  “Once someone shows you how to do it, you remember because you’ve seen it happen right in front of you.”

Students working on the project also took on leadership roles outside their disciplines.  For example, Farah assumed responsibility for public relations on the project because of her interest in writing.  “I volunteered to write our first outreach piece, to the Mayor's Office of New York,” she recalled.  “From there, I was asked to make a presentation.  Since then, I have made numerous presentations all over New York, and my public speaking skills improved, as well.”

Through their participation in the Solar Decathlon, students in the Spitzer School of Architecture and Grove School of Engineering have gained a new appreciation for the complexities of construction and the importance of teamwork and conflict resolution.  By integrating their understanding of how systems and people work together to build a project into the design process, they have gained a competitive advantage for their careers that will deliver benefits to employers and clients alike.

“Design-build projects of any scale promote hands-on attitude, team work and inventive thinking,” Professor Volkmann added.  “Through this project, students will be so much better prepared for their first jobs in professional life.”

On the Internet

Team New York

U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture

Grove School of Engineering



Ellis Simon
p: 212.650.6460