Post TreeHAUS

What won us the competition in Colorado this semester was ultimately our succession plan that provided for a post TreeHAUS future. While TreeHAUS was designed to last 100 years or more, it was also designed to be deconstructed for repairs and ultimate disassembly. It was designed to be recycled at both component and modular levels. And lastly and perhaps most importantly, it was designed to biodegrade after its useful lifecycle in order to preserve the right of Crumpacker woods, the adjacent old growth forest, to take back the land and help TreeHAUS return right back to where it was initially conceived.

This process begs the question of what we do now that we have won the competition. Do we let TreeHAUS die as another unbuilt design? Is it destined to be another collection of pretty pictures that never make it past the page? As the leader of the team I can honestly equate this fate to my nightmare. We discovered too big of a need for housing like this. Of the 100 graduate students who responded to our survey, an alarming 54% were found to be housing insecure before considering utilities. This means that they were spending more than 30% of their stipend on housing costs. When utility costs were taken into consideration, this number jumped to 70%, with some students spending more than 100% of their stipend on housing and utility costs alone (See Figure 1). This is before considering the cost of things like childcare, and groceries!

Figure 1.  Percent of stipend spent on housing and utility costs  for surveyed graduate students from Virginia Tech.

Figure 1. Percent of stipend spent on housing and utility costs for surveyed graduate students from Virginia Tech.

We also developed too good of a design to let it remain only in renderings. The floor plans were applauded by the director of the Solar Decathlon as exceptionally well developed. We provided details for modular construction that could lead to significant savings in time, cost, and waste- not just for our construction but for the industry as a whole. And lastly we invested time to talk with all of our stakeholders, to really understand what it would take to make this thing real. We incorporated all of this feedback into our process and so we have an incredible headstart to actually building this thing. A site at RDF, a budget from the Virginia Tech Foundation, a champion and potential property manager in Residential and Dining Services. Lastly and perhaps most importantly - we recieved the blessing and encouragement of Dean Karen DePauw - who recognizes the need for affordable graduate student housing and tells us so at the end of this short movie we made for the first annual Solar Decathlon Film Festival.

The Value of Competitive Education

Virginia Tech loves competition. Whether it is the North Endzone erupting during Enter Sandman at the Homecoming football game or the slew of architectural competitions thrown at students in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies every semester. Competing is a big part of our culture here in Hokie Nation. While I see the benefits of this (and wouldn’t have been able to lead my first team this semester without it), I do want to probe into some of the pros and cons of such an intensely competitive educational environment.

The pros: The obvious benefit of competing is that to excel you need to push beyond your comfort zone. You also have to learn your way to victory as many competition entries are not covered in the syllabus and many ideas enter creative territory where even faculty are unfamiliar. In group teams this can mean learning to work together (or at least better understanding how you operate within larger teams). Individually you can learn how you stack up to the best in your field, and use it as motivation to improve.

The cons: Depending on who you are competing against, this type of atmosphere can cause tension between students and undermine a unified school spirit. Especially if the stakes are high in a local competition between only Virginia Tech students. More generally, these types of competitions cause STRESS. It is not much different than the way students compete in a course for the best grades, but it is more stark. There is usually only one real winner. The stakes can seem super high and you often only have one chance to get it right.

As far as the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge goes, I really think my experience embodies both the pros and the cons equally. I learned more in a single semester than I learned in 4 years of undergraduate education. Not just about the subject matter but about leading and inspiring others to do their best work. I also have never felt more stressed in my life. Never lost so many nights of sleep. Never felt so responsible for the output of such a large team. Never realized how much my stress affects other friends and family members in my life.

We competed. We excelled. We won. But at what expense? And what now?

Learning from the Balance of Nature

Throughout the course of designing TreeHAUS, my Solar Decathlon team and I made frequent visits to Crumpacker woods, a grove of old growth forest adjacent to our proposed site. This sometimes included meeting with world-renowned tree physiology expert Dr. John Seiler from the College of Natural Resources and Environment (CNRE) here at Virginia Tech. Our visits accomplished two things. First and most obvious, we applied lessons from the forest to the design of TreeHAUS systems. For example, the way water is collected and distributed, using the forest as a sponge to prevent combined sewage overflow. Energy and food systems are also modeled on the distribution of photosynthate between trees through fungal mycorrhizal networks beneath the forest floor, and Nature’s ‘know no waste’ nutrient cycling informing our food waste anaerobic digestion to bio-gas back up power.

The second thing I noticed during these visits to the woods was how much more engaged and excited my fellow teammates became about learning. Their love of learning seemed instantly more animated and bolder. Something about swapping whiteboards for tree trunks, or commercial carpet for a bed of leaves. Something about using millions of years of evolution as your teacher. Something about the environment of being in a forest lowering stress levels and eliciting really thoughtful, creative questions. As Dr. Seiler led us through the site and explained the threat of invasive species on the forest edge and the legacy of 400 year old white oaks, I realized a lesson seemingly much more obvious. It is not just about what we learn, but where we learn it. The experiential element is crucial. A classroom may actually be one of the worst environments in which to learn. We have to slowly start phasing out spaces designed for learning and start bringing the learning to the scene of the subject matter itself.