Northwestern team named grand winners of Solar Decathlon Design Challenge

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Courtesy of Robert Szymczyk

EngiNUity team members are recognized as residential grand winners at the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2021 Solar Decathlon competition. The team formed during the pandemic and has never met in person.

Joshua Perry, Reporter

Northwestern’s team won the Solar Decathlon design challenge April 18 with a project developed entirely during the pandemic.

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the Solar Decathlon challenges university students to design sustainable buildings to limit the human carbon footprint and combat climate change.

This year, 72 teams from 12 countries met virtually for the competition. NU’s team of 12 students, engiNUity, developed NUHome — a model of an energy-efficient, sustainable house. EngiNUity’s presentation won first place in the urban single-family housing division before going on to earn grand winner status for the entire residential division.

McCormick sophomore Saahir Ganti-Agrawal said the team’s success went far beyond his expectations.

“We did a good job, and we felt like our presentation video was compelling,” Ganti-Agrawal said. “But we didn’t necessarily expect that we were going to come here as a new team and actually win the whole thing.”

It wasn’t easy to coordinate the project in the pandemic, according to McCormick sophomore and team member Robert Szymczyk. The team has never met face to face, and communicating through GroupMe, Zoom and Slack was challenging, Szymczyk said.

For students already enrolled in online school, completing the project was no small feat, Szymczyk added. The toll of Zoom classes and pandemic burnout made the project even more difficult, he said.

“You’re sitting in front of a computer all day and then after that you’re asking people to sit in front of a computer for like another three, four hours to be able to get work done on this,” Szymczyk said. “The biggest challenge is motivation.”

Additionally, many of the team members lacked background knowledge of sustainable architecture and had to learn along the way, Szymczyk added.

However, McCormick senior Andrea Lin, who formed the group last year, said her team members were able to push through the challenges of the remote environment and achieve great success.

“They were very new to all of it, and I think the result speaks to their dedication, and desire to make this a really great project,” she said.

As the student lead and project manager, Lin said the biggest challenge leading up to the competition was creating not just professional relationships between team members, but also personal ones.

Even though he’s never met them in person, Szymczyk said he’s really bonded with his team members. He said part of what the Solar Decathlon judges praised engiNUity for was their strong team dynamic — and he completely agrees.

“I’ve worked on teams before where it felt like everybody was just doing the things because they had to do them and there was not much of a connection between everybody,” Szymczyk said. “But I can confidently say that all of the people who worked on this team are my friends.”

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Twitter: @joshdperry

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