Badasses of Stanford: Derek Ouyang and Stanford Solar Decathlon

Posted by at 2:53PM

Initial concept renderings of Stanford Solar Decathlon’s practical yet beautiful Start.Home design.

This week we caught up with Derek Ouyang, ’13, Project Manager of Stanford’s first Solar Decathlon team.

How would you summarize Solar Decathlon in a sentence?

Solar Decathlon is an international competition to design the home of the future, and Stanford is going to win.

Who or what inspired you to start a Solar Decathlon team at Stanford?

Taylor Brady (’13) came up with the idea of putting together a Stanford proposal to compete last Spring. It didn’t make sense to us that Stanford has never competed in such an awesome competition. We submitted last November and received word from the U.S. Department of Energy this past January that we were one of 20 international teams selected to compete next October in Irvine, CA.

What kind of faculty / departmental support do you have?  Where could you use more support?

We have support from almost every department in the School of Engineering and committed faculty advisors as well. We recently got the d.school on board in a major way, helping us move from an engineering design approach to a more human-centered approach. We are starting to get support from the Communications Department and Graduate Business School to help us with marketing and sponsorship, and could definitely use more talented students from these areas.

From a big picture perspective, what do you consider the greatest potential impact of a project like Solar Decathlon?  

From the very beginning we knew that we didn’t want to create a cool showcase house just for the competition — we wanted to use this incredible opportunity to showcase a real industry-changing idea on an international stage. Our idea, called Start.Home, is a new kind of sustainable home module which can be mass-manufactured on an industrial scale and shipped all around the country to build the next generation of net-zero homes. We hope it’s an inspiration to industry, and already some of our supporters want us to build additional core modules for them — who knows, maybe it will become a business sooner than we think!

“Sustainability at the push of a button” – preliminary construction of a building core.

What has been the biggest challenge to the project so far?

Having 100+ people excited about the project is both a blessing and a curse — I spend nearly 40 hours a week just managing our huge team of at least a dozen subteams. But the point of this group is not to be exclusive — it’s really to reach out to our school and engage as many people as possible in sustainability education and an incredible hands-on design project. I just wish sometimes that we didn’t have to go to so many classes on the side.

What has most surprised you about the process?

I’ve been surprised by how much support we’ve gotten from various groups at Stanford and beyond. Sustainable Stanford, VPUE, and the Precourt Institute of Energy are major donors for our project. We were able to get a temporary construction site right by the Terman fountain from March to September of next year from Stanford, and two schools are looking to sponsor the home post-competition. Intel and Bosch are big corporate sponsors, and alumni have been incredibly supportive through donations and networking. We always thought that the idea of students building a net-zero home would interest the community, but we never expected this much feedback and energy. We can’t wait to see what happens once we finally break ground on campus in March!

Disruptive design abounds at the biennial, international Solar Decathlon competition.

Who are the biggest contenders in Solar Decathlon?  What’s their signature trait, and are you planning to beat them at their own game or break the mold for green design?

There are some veterans at the competition (Santa Clara, Caltech/SCI-Arc, Middlebury) who definitely have a big head start and know how to build winning designs. There are also some newcomers close (USC) and far (Austria, Czech Republic) who might have interesting tricks up their sleeves. I think what really will differentiate us from the competition is a Silicon Valley approach to sustainability: technically complex and efficient building systems packaged into a sleek, sexy shell. It’s not just about engineering the perfect, functioning home — it’s about designing a product that people love, and empowering people to actually lead more sustainable lifestyles. After all, we’re not interested in smart homes; we’re interested in smart people.

When and where does the team meet?

There are people meeting and working on Solar Decathlon literally every day of the week. Individual subteams schedule their own weekly meetings and we have interdisciplinary work sessions a couple times a week. Our full-team meetings are 4pm-5pm on Friday in Huang 050, and this is a great place for anybody at Stanford to come check out what we’re doing and chat about the project. Otherwise, the best place to start is solardecathlon.stanford.edu; email one of the team leads to find out how you can get involved!

What kinds of teammates are you looking for?

We are looking for people who are excited about designing and building sustainable homes, have good experience with building technologies, and are fun to work with in a team. This is one of the biggest student projects ever done at Stanford and it demands a certain level of personal commitment, responsibility, and time management. In other words, you gotta have your act together.

What do you see yourself doing after this project?  

We’re going to bring the house back to Stanford after the competition for permanent siting somewhere on campus. As soon as that’s done I’m packing my bags and going to Europe to travel and do art. Then I’ll come back for a Master’s in Structural Engineering, work at a design firm on some large engineering projects, go to architecture school on the east coast, and (hopefully) start my own architecture firm before my hair turns grey.

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