Events & Media

Bren School and UCSB Make a Splash at DOE Competition in D.C.

An interdisciplinary team of students from UCSB, four of whom are from the Bren School, took home a top prize, the “Most Innovative” award, on March 8 at the U.S. Department of Energy’s second annual Better Buildings Case Competition in Washington, D.C.

The ten-member team consisted of Bren School Class of 2013 MESM students James Choe and Justin Lichter; Class of 2014 MESMs Harry Bergmann and Ben White; mathematics PhD candidate Martin Harrison; mechanical engineering PhD candidate Michael Georgescu; environmental studies undergraduates Jason Dale and Alex Kovalick; and art history undergraduates Melanie Jones and Jacob McConnell.

The UCSB team, including Bren students James Choe and Harry Bergmann (far left and second-left), Justin Lichter (sixth-left), and Ben White (far right).

“It was a great experience to represent the Bren School and UCSB at the national level against the best schools in the country,” White said. “It showed me firsthand that our program and the university can compete with, and succeed against, any other program in the country.”

"This was UCSB's first year participating in the competition,” said UCSB LEED program manager and Bren alumnus Jordan Sager  (MESM 2009), who played a key role in pulling the team together. “Our team was one of only two West Coast schools in the competition and was diverse in terms of fields of study, with members representing five departments on campus. Winning in the Most Innovative category is an acknowledgment of both the analytical power and the creativity fostered by this type of interdisciplinary collaboration.”

“Team members from several of the winning teams will be working in varying capacities with the agencies for which the four case studies were compiled to further explore implementation of their proposals,” Sager explained. “It is likely that the Philadelphia Energy Efficient Buildings Hub program administrators will seek continued input from the winning UCSB team.”

The annual contest, which is held at the White House, was created by the Obama administration as a way of engaging university students in solving real-world energy-efficiency problems in order to achieve a 20-percent reduction in industrial and commercial energy use by 2020.

A month before traveling to Washington, each of the 14 teams received two real-world case studies presenting energy-conservation challenges in a built environment. The teams then had to gather their research and create a proposal to present at the competition. White says that the training Bren School students receive in taking innovative interdisciplinary approaches to solving environmental problems served their team well in addressing the issues posed by the competition.

 “The case studies were diverse in their scope and included policy, economics, and science, which hit on some of Bren’s core competencies,” he explained. “Bren’s multidisciplinary approach to problem solving facilitated good teamwork among the diverse UCSB group and helped us to address each case comprehensively.”

Two awards, one each for “Best Proposal” and “Most Innovative,” were presented for each case by Assistant Secretary of Energy David Danielson. Team UCSB took home the award for its strategic proposal to help Montgomery County, Pa., complete a renovation that achieves significant energy savings in a publicly owned, multi-tenant office building. Carnegie Mellon, MIT, the University of Chicago, and Yale were also winners in the contest.

According to Bergmann, the amount of research necessary during the short run-up to the contest presented the biggest challenge to the team.

“We had to sift through a remarkable amount of material, information and data before making a decision,” he said. “It would be one thing if we had a few months, but having only three to four weeks made it an incredible challenge.”

Bergmann also found value in the different lines of thinking employed by fellow competition participants.

“Each proposal we saw had a strong set of recommendations and had a remarkably different approach than the one that we took,” he said. “I learned a lot from seeing the ways that other people thought about and tackled the same problems.”

Sager was made aware of the competition by Dave Auston, executive director of the UCSB Institute for Energy Efficiency in mid-January and then worked with Department of Geography sustainability coordinator Katie Maynard to solicit interested students from various departments.

“We were unsure that we'd get the required minimum of three team members by the Jan 25th deadline, but ended up with interest from twelve students, which worked out perfectly to take the maximum number of ten, since two were less sure they could commit the time,” said Sager. “Every student who was interested and committed was able to participate.”

The DOE provided funds for lodging, and in an attempt to take finances out of the equation for those who wanted to participate, says Sager, “We marketed the competition as a no-cost proposition for students, thinking we'd be able to secure funding through departments and/or AS Finance Board or other outside sources, which worked out. The students did not have to commit any resources other than their time and brainpower.”