Howe Students Shine in Solar Showcase

If you were building a house for the future, you’d want a solid foundation, the right finishes, the best contractor.

You’d also want to put a call in to Stevens.

The university took fourth place in the prestigious U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, a biannual competition challenging schools to design, build and operate the most energy-efficient home within budget and building limits.

While the house was an engineering marvel, the team working on it needed students with broader areas of expertise. The marketing and project management skills Howe School students brought to the table were invaluable to the team’s success, said Mark Pollock, an industry assistant professor and faculty adviser on the project.

Those students were tasked with doing the fundraising and creating sponsorship outreach programs, allowing engineering students to concentrate on the design and construction of the physical house. Business students reached out to potential sponsors to secure the materials and services needed to succeed.

They also developed the plan to do so.

“It wasn’t just, ‘Make some phone calls, be a telemarketer for us,’ ” Pollock said. Rather, it was basic project management: “How do you approach potential sponsors? How do you market the house to individuals, alumni, donors, consultants? That kind of stuff.”

Not an easy sell

Ryan Seiffert, who graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in business and technology from Howe, led the project management and fundraising efforts, and stayed on the team even after commencement. He estimated the students attracted $100,000 worth of in-kind donations of materials, along with $205,000 in cash from corporations, alumni and individuals.

It wasn’t easy, he said.

“Even though donations came from all over, including alumni, local companies and home building companies, we were hoping for monetary support,” he said.

And local companies were a tough sell, Pollock said, since the house was built in Hoboken, but disassembled and shipped across the country for the competition, which was held in Irvine, Calif. “How do you make that pitch to local companies, to say, ‘You’ll get to see it, but not the final product — or the competition’?” he said.

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The Howe students developed plans to do the outreach that brought in such donations, including research on how to approach sponsors and present them with an idea of the return on their donations. They also created and delivered presentations to sponsors — mainly large manufacturers who could donate materials or sell them at cost.

“They would bring to the table the input of what their research was finding, as far as marketing and outreach,” Pollock said. The students then refined their pitches to secure the right materials from the right donors.

“I was really surprised about the amount of collaboration that the project required,” Seiffert said. “Every major at Stevens was involved in some way.”

And that involvement wasn’t just around the blueprints or before corporate boards. During the competition, Seiffert said, each team had two nights when it had to prepare meals for other students.

“All of the measured components of the competition are to show that it’s a functioning house,” he said.

The impact isn’t lost on Seiffert.

“If I had my own house, there’s no way I wouldn’t implement all of this after being part of this project,” he said. “I hope one day to have the opportunity to build my own house similar to this, knowing what I know now.”

Getting involved

One of the biggest takeaways for the Ecohabit team is going younger. “We thought, let’s take seniors and make it part of their senior design projects,” adviser Mark Pollock said.

But the competition takes place in the spring, and by the time construction began, “they were interviewing, or had their jobs — and all of a sudden, it was like, oh wow, we have no one now,” Pollock said.

Some, like Ryan Seiffert, stayed on after graduating. Seiffert joined in fall 2012, and “it took almost the entire first semester to get the organizational structure of the team down.”

To be better prepared going forward, Ecohabit is aiming to bring in highly motivated underclassmen with a passion for the project — and who will be around in a couple of years, when the competition heats up again.

The process of signing up new team members is going on now. To get involved, or for donation information, visit stevens.edu/sd2013