Right now, UL's TEAM BeauSoleil is on the National Mall in Washington DC with their innovative solar home, one of 20 teams competing in the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon. The competitors include universities from around the world, including Cornell, Ohio State, Rice, Illinois, Virginia Tech, and many others. A few weeks ago, ultoday.com spoke to BeauSoleil's Public Relations Officer Catherine Guidry and Faculty Advisor Geoff Gjertson.

Beausoleil House, Solar Decathlon, School of Architecture, University of LouisianaTell us about yourselves. 

Catherine: I think I would like to talk more about the house. I'm more passionate about that.

I started working on the BeauSoleil House in January of 2008. It was the last semester of my undergrad studies in architecture. The eight of us from that semester forward have seen the project from its original conception and design until now.

It's been surreal, this week especially. The project has six separate modules.

Geoff: There were 12 weeks of the students designing different concepts. From those, they selected two designs at the middle of the semester, and one of those at the end of the semester. Then they developed a team of 12, and it went into the summer as a team of eight. That eight have been a part of it the whole time, and have been involved the whole time.

The Decathlon required that we have officers, even before we had a design.

Catherine: Some of the officers are the Project Manager Gretchen Vanicor, Construction Manager Jeremy Credeur, Project Engineer William Depa, and I'm the Public Relations Officer. There are four others who are all integral to the project.

Geoff: It's funny how they grew into those roles naturally. This was totally optional for them to do. I wasn't pushy.

Catherine: No... it was one of two options, we could work on BeauSoleil, or on a landscape design competition.  

Geoff: The International Federation of Landscape Architects holds an international landscape competition for hypothetical designs, about the big picture. So the two competitions are about as different as they could be. The Solar Decathlon is also an international competition, but it's a tangible 800 square foot home that the students have to design, build, and operate.

These guys, the architecture and engineering students, like schedules and budgets. They like projects that are competitive, challenging, intense. And everyone loves to build.

Catherine: If I've ever interacted with a group of passionate individuals, this is by far the most passionate group of eight-- nine, with Geoff-- that I've ever worked with.

We're all really, really passionate about this project. We're so excited about representing our University, our culture, and our state. And we're promoting alternative energy as we represent them.

Geoff: This is a perfect year for the competition.

Catherine: In 2007 there were 120K visitors. It's expected that next month there will be over 200K, and over 1B media hits, maybe more with social media. In just two years it's gotten so much bigger.

Just our Communications Team made it a goal to reach over 1M media impressions, and we're there.

Geoff: It's timely for a number of reasons. We have really big UL supporters, and they love competition. They want us to go up there and kick some... to kick some butt.

Then you have a people who are just happy that there is a place called Lafayette. It will be in our name, on our shirts, in the literature.

And you have environmental activists here, and supporters of sustainable design, which includes the use of environmentally friendly materials, the use of alternative energy.

Catherine: It also includes environmental design strategies, in general. You can purchase solar panels, but a design strategy would be solar orientation, or passive ventilation. It's important. Unlike a product, design strategy really involves the users and requires them to be aware of their environment.

Geoff: That's what the whole project does, it makes us more aware of our environment, of our culture. Not just for the team, but for everyone involved. We like to think it's the whole community.

We did a survey, there was a 50% name recognition for the BeauSoleil House in the Spring of 2009. Our goal right now is 75%.

Catherine: This was done right around the time we were beginning to strengthen our message.

Geoff: I think since then, with the billboards, the social media, the print media, and just word-of-mouth, I think we're heading toward 75% name recognition. The plumber told us his friend in New Iberia knew about it.

Catherine: I was at dinner the other day, and someone said, "Oh, you're working on the BeauSoleil project." It's a weird feeling, they were so excited about it. And this was a University student.

Beausoleil House, Solar Decathlon, School of Architecture, University of LouisianaGeoff: I get that all the time, at church and stuff, people say, "You're rolling out the house this week," and I think, "How did they know that?"

The Russo group has been a great help, they've been working on the social media.

We have had an excellent group of professionals working pro bono or at a highly discounted rate, who did the graphics, the website, the event planning, so we've just had a great group. We've tried to reach outside the University for our expertise, so that it's not just academic, but more mainstream, to reach a wider audience.

Catherine: We always thought the house is for everyone. Our goal is that it be affordable by the median income family. So from the beginning we wanted to have as broad a reach as we can. We didn't want it to be an academic exercise. We wanted it to be relevant to the community.

[Catherine excused herself at this point for another meeting.]

Geoff: We're going to landscape outside of the house. We're bringing crepe myrtle, magnolia, long leaf pine, swamp cyrilla, then we have water plants like palmetto, swamp lily, and common rush.

We worked with Roy Dufreche, a landscape architect, one of the fathers of a team member. He created different biomes, bog, coastal plain, and upland hardwood. We're bringing the pants in pots. One part of our strategy is to incorporate the exterior into the experience. Our deck is twice as big as the house. The Department of Energy said, "Do you really want to do that? It's a lot of work." President Kennedy said something to the effect, "We didn't want to go to the moon because it was easy, but because it was hard."

That's my take on it. We didn't design a deck that's twice as big as the house because it's easy, but because it's hard.

The same thing is true about the roof form, that will set us apart. The roof form is a gabled roof, with a shifting ridge line, a curve that sweeps from the middle on east end, to the north side on the west end. It creates this very dynamic asymmetrical roof.

So the eave is straight and conventional from the south side. On the north side, however, the roof tapers. That really accentuates the kitchen which has the highest ceiling in the house. You want to dissipate the heat, but culturally it's the most important part of the house in south Louisiana. Actually it's a debate, which is more important, the kitchen or the "dogtrot", our interior/exterior space for dining & entertaining? Anyway, it's very dynamic, contemporary roof line on the North.

We're all on the same page, we're talking about how our school approaches incorporating the traditional architecture of Louisiana, the culture of Louisiana, and the climate of Louisiana, with modern materials, systems, and design concepts. It tries to be honest about the past and the future, and a blending of that. I think the house does that very well. Because it's so small, you want it to be as efficient as possible, to our lifestyle, and to the moment at hand. It needs to respond to unexpected, whether it's a hurricane, or a friend showing up at the spur of moment and having a dinner party.

90% of the guys on our team are from Acadiana/South Louisiana. So there's that Cajun spirit of adapting, making do, doing the most with the least, that we've tried to be true to.

Does Brad Pitt know about this?

Yeah.  One of our students gave him the brochure about the project. At first, he took a cursory look, and he dropped his hand by his side. Then he pulled it back as he walked off, something caught his eye.

I heard that at the beginning, there was great doubt from our team.

It wasn't so much that, it was a rallying cry. We were selected with all these big schools, and we said, "Look, we want to prove that we belong there to anyone who didn't think we did."

You're using all of these innovative design approaches. Do you think the engineers with the Department of Energy will respond?

They have different juries. NREL [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] under the DoE organizes the competition. For the most part, they're engineers. But of the 10 concept evaluations-- hence, a 'decathlon'-- five are subjective evaluations by juries, and five are conducted by instrumentation.

You have a jury of three architects and three custom home builders who evaluate for market viability. They'll like it that from the beginning we've been working with a modular home builder. Louisiana System Built Homes in St. Martinville really wants to do a modular home that's a little different.

You have an engineering competition, a lighting competition, and a communications contest-- I think this one we have wrapped up, because DoE has already told us they're very excited about what we've done to promote it, the graphics, the website, we're even bringing the [Grammy winning Beausoleil] band.

We have the personality that most of the teams don't have. From the beginning we were BeauSoleil, so the name adds a lot of weight. We're honored to use it, to represent Beausoleil Broussard, and Beausoleil the band. The band has been cultural ambassadors for 30 years. So if we can pick up on that, it's an honor.

We also have to cook a couple of meals for eight people, for our neighbors. We have a corner lot on the end of the row, that gives us a lot of exposure. We have the University of Arizona next to us, across the street the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and next to them, the University of Missouri. We invite two members of each team plus our two. Then they cook for us. Then we report on it.

We'll have a constructed wetland on the north side. That will be lit at night and cast these wonderful shadows up on the wall, which will help us with the lighting competition. We also have LED lights to light up the translucent roof of the dogtrot transitional porch.

Here in Acadiana, we tend to include our young people more, and give them more responsibility.

Yeah, that's true. This is their project. They make the decisions, they design the house, and they build the house. They have the responsibility of managing the other students, and managing the construction. First and foremost this project is about learning. It's a unique opportunity for these guys to learn by doing, and do it on an international stage.

Does that happen elsewhere?

That's hard to say. I'd like to say we give them greater responsibility. Some places it looks that the faculty have hand-picked the team members, and some designs appear to be much more heavily influenced by the faculty.

This is probably the biggest engineering & architecture design-built project that architecture departments work on. It's also probably the project with the highest profile. Just the logistical problems tend to deter a lot of schools.

If we just had to build it, that would be relatively easy. It's building it, breaking it down, shipping it up there, and reassembling it in four days, then after it's over, getting it all back down here.

Beausoleil House, Solar Decathlon, School of Architecture, University of LouisianaHow are you holding up?

Good. It's a challenge. I get up very early to get started. But we've also been pacing ourselves, we've looked at it like a marathon. Last weekend was the first time the students have come in on the weekend. We're in good shape.

One last thing I want to include, is just how much we thank everyone who has helped out, the businesses, the contractors, the suppliers, the plumber and the electrician who have donated their time, the World of Wings in River Ranch who brought us buffalo wings on a Monday. We couldn't have done it without this community, and the support of the whole University.

But that was what it was all about in the first place.

Yeah. That's my biggest stress right now, wanting to thank everyone who helped.

Bottom photograph courtesy of Phillip Gould.