SANTA CLARA -- There's nothing I like better than an old -- over even new -- college rivalry.
My love of a good grudge is what has me in a fenced-off area of a parking lot on Santa Clara University's campus looking at a sleek modular home surrounded by debris, construction material and sweaty students who are racing to finish building the thing.
This is Santa Clara's sustainable-house-building team, a perennial powerhouse in the power-saving home building competition known as the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. Forgive the Broncos if they swagger, hammer in hand. The Santa Clara crew is heading toward its third biennial decathlon and they've never finished lower than third in the global contest that rewards the most energy-efficient and aesthetically pleasing house.
But this year there is an extra-delicious element. For the first time, Stanford University is fielding a house-building team. Two schools, 17 miles apart, situated in the heart of the innovation and going-green capital of the world. It's a rivalry made in heaven. Break out the profane T-shirts and the immature pre-game pranks. No question: This is going to be epic. Right kids?
"Winning would be the icing on the cake; just leaving that huge legacy," says Santa Clara senior Nicole Pal, assistant project manager. "Santa Clara does have a winning tradition and being able to step that up would be nice, but it really is about the journey."
Yeah, yeah. The journey. It's apparently a long one, according to Pal, who's studying Web design and engineering. Twenty decathlon teams work two years designing and building homes that produce a carbon footprint so small that you'd barely notice it. About 150 students at Stanford and about 200 at Santa Clara got involved, though each campus had a core of closer to 50 long-term participants. Students line up donors willing to contribute money, material and time (about $1 million worth each to run and complete the Silicon Valley schools' home-building projects. The houses must be Better Homes and Gardens beautiful. Oh, and, they must be dismantled, loaded onto trailers and trucked to the competition (this year in Orange County) and then rebuilt.
Next, the houses are put through their paces for 10 days and graded on everything from energy efficiency to the home's ability to host a good party. And the victor wins nothing more than the satisfaction of a job very well done.
But enough with the details. What about the rivalry with Stanford? You know that gold-plated West Coast Ivy that is constantly being called the best this and the best that; the brainiac factory that is seemingly single-handedly responsible for launching and sustaining Silicon Valley; the place with the 19 Nobel laureates (28 if you count the dead ones) that alums never tire of talking about? Don't you want to smack those kids around a little?
"We had Stanford down for a barbecue and showed them the '09 house," Pal says, referring to SCU's third-place entry from 2009, which sits on campus today. "That was definitely something that was very Santa Clara of us to do."
Hoo-boy. I come looking for the home-building version of Stanford and Cal in the Big Game and I get the 21st century version of "This Old House," complete with tips from one competitor to another.
Wait; wait. Here's a guy who looks like he's been up all night working on the house's radiant heating and cooling system. I'm guessing he's cranky enough to talk smack about the competition. What do you say, Mike Holligan?
"I'm not as concerned with winning as I am that this works as well as we hope it will," answers Holligan, a senior mechanical engineering student, who's spent enough time in the high-tech abode's control room that he might as well move into it.
Maybe I was going about this all wrong. Maybe I should be stirring things up on the Stanford side. After all, Stanford is the rookie, the underdog; an unlikely position for a school that even has a good football team these days.
How about it, Stanford? You've got that snazzy house nearly completed. You ready to talk some trash about the competitor to the south?
"It's not that we're not competitive," says Lilly Shi, a senior architecture student and communications lead for the Stanford team. "But we haven't been thinking a whole lot about the other teams, because we're more immersed in getting our project done."
The barbecue with Santa Clara, she says, was a lot of fun, by the way. "We're hoping that a couple of them will come to our send-off, as well."
The Broncos house will arrive in Orange County any day. It got an early start to accommodate the trucking company that agreed to move it for free. Stanford's house is scheduled to head south later this week.
So there is still time. Maybe some bad blood, or even some boiling blood will still develop between these two determined competitors.
"I think everyone wants to win the competition," says Brian Grau, a junior, who runs public relations for the Santa Clara team. "But it's more than that. We have a chance here to change the future. May the best team win."
Enough. I give up.