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Racing the Sun

Article Published: Nov. 4, 2010 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011
Racing the Sun

Jon Kirchner, ASU appropriate technology graduate student and solar decathlete, attends the grand opening of ASU's Solar Decathlon building site in Boone.

Photo by Laura Tabor

Decathlons require stamina, critical thinking, prioritizing, and ... solar panels?

The U.S. Department of Energy is hosting the Solar Decathlon, a competition that involves inviting proposals and selecting the top 20 teams in the world to create their dreams in real wood, nails, solar panels and any other raw materials they need to build a cutting-edge sustainable home.

Those homes, built in one year, will then be transported to the National Mall in Washington D.C., where thousands of people will survey the display.

During the course of 21 days, the homes will be subjected to 10 tests that will determine the all-around winner for the competition.

This year, Appalachian State University's team was selected to compete, and, after some donors stepped up to the plate to support the efforts of the student team, the project has officially "broken ground" at their new building site, a warehouse on U.S. 421 near New Market Centre.

The team, which began as eight students coming up with ideas in a dark office, is now at more than 50 people. The building has offices that are full of plans, diagrams and a scale model, as well as a large bay in which construction can take place through the winter months.

The grand opening was held on Oct. 30 at the new building site and featured comments from ASU Chancellor Kenneth Peacock, ASU Board of Trustees chairwoman Jeannine Underdown Collins, Dean of the College of Fine and Applied Arts Glenda Treadaway, decathlete Dave Lee, and representatives from some of the donors and sponsors, including Larry Stone of Lowe's Home Improvement, the lead sponsor.

"When people hear about this, they say 'This is a big deal,'" Peacock said, emphasizing how impressive it was that Appalachian State had made it this far in the competition in spite of having no engineering program on campus.

Behind the speakers was a module of the final house that has already been constructed. "It will be a fantastic piece and way to test what we're currently working on," Lee explained.

Many local politicians and supporters attended the event, as well, to learn more about the project and offer congratulations.

N.C. Rep. Cullie Tarleton said, "On a scale of 1 to 10, this is about 110. I don't know if the average person understands how important this is."

The project is part of the ongoing commitment to sustainable energy and appropriate technology that Appalachian State and, more generally, Western North Carolina, has demonstrated.

Collins explained that the impact of this project will be "immeasurable" and that the spirit of the project has been one of collaboration and getting people involved.

At the event, Stone presented Peacock with a check for $250,000, with a promise of support in materials from Lowe's, as well.

The money will go, in part, to the materials that will allow the project to demonstrate sustainability and create a zero-impact home.

While the students will be hard at work for the rest of the semester, they will be enrolled in a special class called Solar Decathlon next semester, where the work will continue.

Jon Kirchner, an appropriate technology graduate student and solar decathlete, described this experience as a valuable asset for all the team members.

"It is adding to my library of knowledge, giving us hands-on experience," Kirchner said. "Later on, that will really help in the real-world job market."

Visit to learn more about the Appalachian State project and how to support the team or become a team member. At, you can also learn more about the contest and next year's display on the National Mall.

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