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A team of UCF mechanical engineering students took home the third-place prize in the Attached Housing Division of the 2022 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. This is the first time a UCF team has placed in this event.

The Solar Decathlon is a collegiate competition that challenges students to create low-cost, energy-efficient buildings with renewable resources. This year, 55 teams from 38 colleges and universities made it to the finals. Ryerson University and Ball State University were the only two teams to best UCF in the Attached Housing Division.

The DOE encourages students to work in multidisciplinary teams, and most students who enter the competition major in architecture, environmental sciences or civil engineering. For the team of all mechanical engineers – which includes Clara Poffenberger, Deonarine Singh Jr., Diony Abreu, Nevan Eichorn, Shia Guilarte and Tara Ekram Nia – the lack of teammates from other disciplines made the challenge that much tougher. But Abreu said it also makes the win much more satisfying.

“It feels surreal,” Abreu said. “We were all mechanical engineering students learning the industry from zero. Winning third place against the best in the universities in the nation and overseas speaks to the quality of professionals UCF is putting out.”

Design, Build, Try

The Solar Decathlon offers two different challenges for students: Design or Build. The Knights participated in the Attached Housing Division of the Design Challenge, which asks students to find creative solutions for real-world issues plaguing the building industry.

For their award-winning project, the UCF team imagined a complete upgrade of the Fair Oaks Apartments in St. Petersburg. Each apartment would be furnished with LED lighting, energy-saving appliances, wireless programmable thermostats and motion sensors, among other efficient amenities. Outdoor upgrades would include solar panels, irrigation to harvest rainwater, charging stations for electric vehicles and a community garden.

Abreu said their strategy was to prioritize the planet and profit as well as people. By including a garden and community gathering spaces, they could revitalize the whole neighborhood as well as the apartment complex.

“Our goal was to help renters form a community within themselves and the wider neighborhood,” he said. “By reusing existing infrastructure, the overall environmental impact generated by the project was much lower than demolition and new construction.”

Student at ONRL
Clara Poffenberger with the Solar Decathlon trophy

The Decathlon Marathon

Their project not only had a positive impact on the environment, but it also had a positive impact on the judges. The team presented their project to a panel of industry experts during the final round of competition, which was hosted both virtually and in person.

Poffenberger, the UCF team leader, was the only student who was able to attend the in-person event, held at the DOE’s Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado.

“As the sole in-person representative, I had a great time connecting with other national and international teams as well as networking with previous Solar Decathletes and industry representatives,” Poffenberger said. “It was so inspiring to see all the creative solutions other teams designed and really motivated me to continue guiding my career to focus on sustainable solutions to climate change.”

As if participating in the DOE competition wasn’t enough, the UCF team also presented their project in the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s Senior Design Showcase, which happened to start on the same day. The schedule presented some additional challenges for the group, but they also learned valuable lessons in the process.

“The biggest lesson I learned is that communication is vital to executing any project,” Abreu said. “This experience gave us a glance at what to expect in the workforce and helped us acquire valuable technical skills of use in our field.”