This tipi-inspired solar house designed and built by an aboriginal team from the University of Calgary is exhibited on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall as part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon

Indigenous Students Bring Renewable Energy Quest to the National Mall

Rob Capriccioso

WASHINGTON—While the push from policymakers for renewable energy development currently faces something of a slowdown in the nation’s capital due to intense cost-cutting congressional desires and political fallout involving federal funding of the now-bankrupt Solyndra solar energy project, several indigenous students are keeping the flame alive.

As part of a U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, a college competition focused on highlighting cutting-edge renewable-energy projects, a group of First Nations students and advisers from the University of Calgary set out for Washington, D.C., in late September. They brought with them plans and components for a tipi-inspired solar house that they hope will end up alleviating a housing crisis in Native communities worldwide.

The solar house, which the students erected on the National Mall as part of the competition, has received a bounty of attention largely due its high-tech approach to sustainability that’s based on traditional principles. Its walls are made of tough magnesium oxide panels, resistant to mold and fire, which means maintenance costs are kept low. A solar-smart grid, energy efficient structure, and photovoltaic generation have also impressed visitors who can view the project on the Mall as the competition progresses through Oct. 2.

The home’s rounded form and east-facing entrance, meanwhile, are inspired by the tipi, meant to honor the sun as a traditional source of energy and life, to foster a sense of identity and ownership.

According to the students who conceptualized and built the house, the idea behind it was to first address the needs of the Treaty 7 First Nations of southern Alberta. They saw the project as being the first step in building a sustainable housing option for Native communities back home that could also be adopted by American tribes and other Indigenous Peoples.

Throughout, the plans have been overseen by an Aboriginal Advisory Council, composed of 10 tribal citizens from various tribes ranging from Blackfoot to Cree to Kwanlin Dün. The home on the Mall was blessed by the former Chief of the Piikani Nation, Reg Crowshoe, during ceremonies preceding the competition. Through the course of the ceremonies, the project earned a Blackfoot name—Spo’pi—which means turtle, and translates directly into “lives on stilts,” which seems especially fitting given the competition and final foundation design strategies.

The student team itself is composed of aboriginal students from various disciplines and includes Chris Fry, a Kwanlin Dün First Nation citizen, as well as Adam Cripps, an engineering student and structural lead for the project who is a member of Ermineskin First Nation in Alberta.

“The project was started when there was a realization that Native Canadian communities are experiencing a housing crisis,” said Alexandre Ste-Marie, the student communications lead for the project, who is of Huron-Wendat descent. “Combining cutting-edge technologies and Native traditions, the innovative design from Canada’s team meets the modern needs of a complex and sensitive market.”

According to government statistics, on some Canadian reserves one in every four homes needs major repair, and many homes are overcrowded, with some having a life cycle of only five years, which perpetuates a current nationwide demand for 30,000 units. As with some reservation homes in the U.S., materials and energy have been wasted in some of the Canadian structures, with high economic and environmental impacts being the result. Mold and fire have also become problematic, threatening individual and community well-being.

The student project aims to turn the dire statistics around. Students told visitors on tours of the Mall structure that it will last 15 to 20 times longer than current reserve housing, and they estimated that it would use 70 percent less energy than a typical 1,000-square-foot Albertan house.

“[The house’s] durability and energy efficiency is a foundation for affordability, reducing the high annual cost of replacement faced by local Native governments,” said Ste-Marie. “With feed-in-tariffs and a solar smart-grid, energy costs could also be eliminated or even act as a source of revenue.”

It remains to be seen whether the students will win an award during the DOE’s Solar Decathlon competition, with final awards scheduled to be announced Saturday October 1.

“Competing in D.C. is definitely an experience of a lifetime!” Ste-Marie said in the midst of the excitement. “It was amazing to be able to put the house back together in a short five days before being able to compete for 10 days in the nation’s capital against 18 other teams from around the world.”

He said the team looks forward to seeing whether the architecture judges take into account that the team’s tipi-inspired creation is the only house in this competition with a curved solar array.

Whether or not the students win, they say they have already learned some valuable lessons.

“This project shows the world that it is possible to have an interdisciplinary project and speaks to the importance of experiential learning in the education system,” said Ste-Marie. “I cannot imagine a better way to put your theoretical knowledge to work than to be able to work with engineers, architects, designers, graphic artists, communications students, to develop this immensely complex project. Essentially it was like running a small business during the past two years.”

He added that the most important lesson centered on the consultation of Native communities before developing solutions for them: “In this project we did not build a house for First Nations, we built it with them in an equal partnership where their opinions and values were put at the forefront.”


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