Meet UAB’s 2017 Solar Decathlon team

Meet the team of UAB students working to build a house completely powered by solar energy for the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon Competition.
Written by: Purnima Kasthuri Janarthanan
Media contact: Tiffany Westry Womack, tiffanywestry@uab.edu


solar decath webThe team of students represent seven academic departments in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, UAB School of Engineering, Collat School of Business, and the UAB Graduate School.

In October, a team of University of Alabama at Birmingham students will compete against 11 collegiate teams at the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2017 Competition in Denver, Colorado. For the first time in the competition’s history, the Solar Decathlon 2017 teams will be competing for a total of $2 million in prize money.

With the help of UAB faculty and staff, the students have been working for more than a year to design and build a house powered completely by solar energy. The house, dubbed the Surviv(AL) House, will undergo a variety of tests over the course of the competition. For example, students will be required to wash laundry, and clothes will be checked to make sure there is enough power for the dryer to fully dry the clothes. Other appliances will be checked to make sure they meet normal expectations, such as a water heater that can sustain hot water for the typical length of a shower. The house will also have to provide sufficient energy to charge an electric car enough so that the car can be driven 25 miles during the competition.

The team will be required to prepare meals for two dinner parties at which they will host teams from other universities. Frank Stitt, owner and executive chef of Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega Restaurant, and Chez Fon Fon, helped students develop a Southern-style menu. They will also host a movie night using the house’s audiovisual equipment with snacks prepared in the home’s kitchen. Bonus points will be awarded for any excess power generated by the house.

After the competition, the house will become a permanent part of UAB’s campus and serve as a learning lab for students and the Birmingham community. The team of undergraduate and graduate students represents a wide range of backgrounds, interests and academic disciplines.

Penninah MorganPenninah Morgan

Penninah Morgan, a native of Sipsey, Alabama, is pursuing a dual major in sociology and anthropology in the UAB College of Arts and Sciences. Morgan juggles multiple roles in the solar decathlon project, from managing internal and external communications to logistics and events.

“My favorite thing about my roles is that I get to help develop engaging ways to bring the story of both the house and the team to diverse audiences in Alabama,” Morgan said.

Morgan also works as an intern with UAB Sustainability and wants to combine her knowledge of sociology and anthropology to create solutions to social and environmental issues.

“I am a fierce proponent of renewable energy in Alabama, so I just naturally gravitated in that direction,” Morgan said. “Through this project, I have gained a deeper understanding of and appreciation for different ways to effectively communicate ideas to people in ways that keep them connected to their roots while also propelling them into the future of renewable energy.”  

Morgan also has interests in geographical sciences and the design and planning of sustainable cities. She plans to pursue a career related to sustainability.

Forrest SatterfieldForrest Satterfield

Forrest Satterfield is a senior majoring in biomedical engineering in the UAB School of Engineering and a native of Huntsville, Alabama. Satterfield is a student-entrepreneur and runs a company called Satterfield Technologies, which creates 3-D prosthetic casts for individuals with poor mobility. The company was created with the help of the UAB iLab, a joint initiative between the UAB Collat School of Business and the Innovation Depot. He is also the founder and director of the UAB MakerSpace.

Satterfield serves as the user experience designer for the Surviv(AL) House, focusing on how people can interact with and live in the house. He puts himself in a potential user’s shoes and tries to design the house with all the necessary comforts. He will also communicate the benefits of the house to a future user with the help of data and insights on its comforts.

His fascination with the idea of a completely solar-powered house, and what it would take to build such a house, is what drew him to the project. He plans to take what he is learning about sustainable practices and apply it to future projects.

Huang QianHuang Qian

Huang Qian is a first year Ph.D. student in civil engineering who hails from Guangxi – a Chinese autonomous region in South Central China. Qian is a construction manager for the Surviv(AL) House. He oversees and directs construction from start to finish, reviews the project in depth in order to estimate the cost of deliverables, and schedules their arrival at the right time. He also oversees all on-site and off-site constructions to ensure the house complies with construction standards and safety regulations.

Qian says working on the house has given him a deeper understanding of the concept of green building construction and its applications.

“Green building construction pursues solutions that provide a healthy and dynamic balance between environmental, social and economic benefits,” Qian said.

His role on the team requires an eye for detail, something that has been instilled in the entire team by Hessam Taherian, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“Dr. Taherian has been a great mentor to us throughout this project.” Qian said. “He works very carefully and meticulously, and expects a high level of accuracy in construction, and has helped me develop an attitude of doing rigorous scientific research through this project.”

Qian plans to pursue a career in the green building industry and is looking forward to working in Denver with the team.

robert jamesRobert James

Robert James, of Birmingham, is a recent graduate of the UAB Collat School of Business, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in marketing management. James is in charge of communications and furnishings for the house.

James says working on the Surviv(AL) House was the perfect opportunity to combine his interests in solar energy with his knowledge of marketing. It has also opened his eyes to the varying ways in which people across fields of study are trained to communicate and think.

“Many of my experiences at UAB have been with other students with majors related to business, and I’ve gotten used to a marketer’s way of communicating,” James said. “Learning the way people in other fields communicate, like an engineer’s way of communicating, and adapting to it has been an interesting experience.”

His fondness for solar energy led him to create a website called SolarJobsNA.com, an online job board where employers can post job openings related to solar energy.

“The job board can be used to find solar energy jobs in North America,” James said. “People can also make connections with employers and keep up-to-date with everything solar.”

James is exploring career options in the area of sustainability.

Gabriel Nnamdi OkaforGabriel Nnamdi Okafor

Gabriel Okafor, a native of Anambra, Nigeria, is pursuing a master’s degree in  mechanical engineering. His roles in the solar decathlon team are diverse. He helps with media content, fundraising events, logistics and cost estimations; but his primary focus is design and construction. 

Okafor’s master’s thesis focuses on distributed power generation, highly efficient and localized use of energy to reduce grid dependency. Working on the Surviv(AL) House has given him a deeper knowledge of the way homes are built, and it ignited a passion for sustainability.

“I come from a place where cinder blocks are the norm for construction, so the experience of using wood was quite interesting,” Okafor said. “The future is trending toward process optimization on every level. Environmental awareness and energy conservation are also increasing steadily. In other words, the future of everyone is not far away from the ideals this solar house projects.”

He is considering a career related to environmental awareness and energy conservation.  

“A career related to sustainability would only serve to put the decathletes and me at the forefront of eradicating the social, domestic and industrial norms that collectively contribute to environmental damage,” Okafor said.

Okafor offers great compliments to the team’s work ethic as they give much importance to cohesiveness. He considers this quality as something that can be taken as a life lesson.

Azadeh SohrabiAzadeh Sohrabi

Azadeh Sohrabi, a native of Shirazi, Iran, is pursuing a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary engineering with a concentration in mechanical engineering. Her previous experience working with projects related to solar energy made her an excellent candidate for the role of project manager for the Surviv(AL) House. As a master’s student in Iran, Sohrabi worked on a project in which she made a solar water heater from scratch.

Sohrabi says being on the solar decathlon team has exposed her to certain fields of study with which she was previously unfamiliar. She had not worked on building a house completely powered by solar and has gained insight into the art of building a house with the help of civil engineering students on the team.

“It is good to work in a team with members from diverse backgrounds since I learn a lot from them,” Sohrabi said. “I chose interdisciplinary engineering because I would like to know about the other engineers as well.”

She considers the project an invaluable experience and plans to utilize her knowledge in her native land.  

“Since Iran has long, hot and dry summers, resulting in abundant solar energy,” Sohrabi said, “I think projects related to solar energy have a great scope in such places.”

daniel reevesDaniel Reeves

Daniel Reeves, of Madison, Alabama, is a senior majoring in industrial distribution with a concentration in medical supplies. He was led to the Surviv(AL) House by his interest in green construction, and he was able to help the team build the decks and planters for the house.

Reeves says he learned a lot, including technological advancements in solar panels that have made them more efficient, as well as the importance of coordination when managing a building project.

“The project has a lot of moving parts,” Reeves said. “The timely arrival of deliverables and utilizing raw materials is crucial. In this type of work, doing a job to perfection is especially important to avoid wasting raw materials. The project is like a mini company that is run by the students.”

The project added practical, hands-on experience to lessons learned in the classroom.

“It’s fascinating,” Reeves said, “to see the union of taught concepts and practical knowledge helping us to go from a design phase to a completed house.”

scott jonesScott Jones

Scott Jones, of Gallatin, Tennessee, is a senior majoring in mechanical engineering. His interest in renewable energy led him to join the solar decathlon team, where his primary role includes solar ray designing and panel installation.

Jones has been an intern with UAB Sustainability for nearly two years. He has been on the solar decathlon team since its creation and helped form the Energy Efficiency and Sustainability club through which this project is run.

He gained valuable experience installing solar panels working as an intern with Birmingham’s Vulcan Solar Power, LLC. The company installed the largest solar-energy system in the city on top of the UAB Campus Recreation Center in 2016, when the solar decathlon team was in the design phase. Jones was there to learn everything he could about the installation.

“Design process is very iterative,” Jones said. “You have to continually make changes and update your design according to new circumstances.”

Sandeep Singh Chahal Sandeep Singh Chahal

Sandeep Singh Chahal, of Amritsar, a city in Punjab, India, is a recent graduate of the Master of Science in Mechanical Engineering Program. Chahal works as a research assistant for Assistant Professor Hessam Taherian, Ph.D., in the Mechanical Engineering Department at UAB, who introduced Chahal to the solar decathlon team.

Chahal helps with construction of the Surviv(AL) House. One thing that stood out to him when deciding to join the team was the opportunity to work with people from different fields of study and get exposure to fields that are relatively new to him. He says the project has been of great help to his studies in many ways.

“This project helps me with networking, and I have developed a lot of contacts from the time I stepped into this,” Chahal said. “I make use of a lot of mechanical engineering concepts in the project, one of which is HVAC — heating, ventilation and air conditioning.”  

The project is his first hands-on experience with construction, which he considers vital for his future. He is planning to pursue a Ph.D.

Chantel JordiChantel Jordi

Chantel Jordi is a mechanical engineering master’s student from Bridgeport, Alabama. While Jordi only began volunteering with the solar decathlon team this summer, she was not a novice in building construction when she started volunteering for the project.  

“My dad has a remodeling construction business, and I helped him a lot growing up,” Jordi said. “So, I thought I can definitely pull this off, and it is also kind of engineering experience in a way.”

Jordi lends a helping hand wherever she is needed and says her work on the Surviv(AL) House will help set her apart in the job market by providing her with experience apart from academics. Jordi was a driver and part of the design team for the Shell Eco Marathon, an annual competition sponsored by Shell, in which participants build special vehicles to achieve the highest possible fuel efficiency

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