Max Daris’ eye lingered on the discarded, slatted shipping pallet.
In his mind’s eye, the pallet looked like a doghouse — snug in the winter, cool in the summer.
So the creative, hands-on high school student grabbed that abandoned pallet.
And therein hangs a tale — a shaggy dog, happy-ending tale.
Daris grabbed the pallet and took it down to the wood shop and thunked it down on a work bench before the three other members of a student team that had been scratching their collective heads for days, determined to use only scrap materials to build an energy efficient doghouse — and to win glory in a statewide competition staged by the Arizona State University School of Education.
An intensive, creative, improvisational 30 hours of work later, the team had an ingenuously designed solar doghouse, with vents, a reflective white paint job, light, thin, well-insulated walls and other construction tricks that ensure the inside stays 35 percent cooler inside in the full sun of a summer day and snug and warm inside even with a load of snow on the roof.
It’s also sturdy enough for team members to stand on the roof and light enough to toss into the back of a pickup.
Oh, yeah, and it’s also the best darned recycled, energy-efficient doghouse in Arizona, according to engineer judges from ASU’s Ira Fulton School of Engineering, who recently judged a small city of doghouses constructed by the top 16 high school vocational programs in the state — all competing by invitation only.
“I had no idea what we were going to do before I found that small pallet,” said Daris, one of the students in a construction and design class that caps a four-year series of vocational classes in the building trades.
“It was a lot harder than I expected,” to solve the numerous small problems that contributed to the energy efficiency of the structure built entirely with scrap materials, he said, ruefully. “Basically, everyone would throw out ideas — and from there it was a lot of trial and error.”
This year, the class taught by Richard Alvarez has focused on energy efficiency — bolstered by state vocational and federal grants that will allow the students to ultimately build and show off solar water heater designs.
Moreover, the federal grant has allowed the district to hire on contract physics teacher Andrew Fiala, who has interjected math and physics into the class. That helps students understand the science behind their constructions and perhaps get them thinking about college and careers as architects and engineers.
“We want them to start from the other end of the project,” said Alvarez, so they learn to create and innovate and design, instead of just following a set of plans.
Ian Bloomfield, another of the winning team members, said “It was actually fun. We started out with a simple design, which we worked up on a computer — based on the materials we could use.”
Consider the evolution of the walls of the snug little doghouse, which had plastic hangings in front of the door, like the entry into a cold room in a grocery store. Initially, the group seized one of Alvarez’s lectures on innovative insulation techniques. In that case, he talked about the remarkable insulating properties of pine needle-concrete walls in a Flagstaff subdivision.
They asked Alvarez what he thought of applying that technique to a doghouse.
Alvarez laughed. “I just gave them sacks of sand and pine needles and said “experiment.”
So the group framed the doghouse with cut down two-by-fours and slats from pallets, then mixed up a batch of concrete and pine needles to plaster over the frame. But that produced a doghouse too heavy to even move.
Back to the drawing board.
Someone suggested Polar Cap, a light, coating like thin concrete slopped on to roofs to provide insulation. Alvarez had talked about the great efficiency of this fire-resistant material and the curious resistance to its use in the construction industry, which remains dominated by the often tradition-bound, but poorly informed choices of consumers. So the students mixed a batch of the Polar Cap, with a dose of high-grade sand to give it the texture needed to hang onto a coat of white paint.
Sure enough, the mixture provided excellent insulation and weighed only a fraction of the concrete pine-needle mix.
Before they nailed the whole thing together, Fiala offered a quick lesson in thermal expansion — teaching the eager students how to calculate how much their particular materials would expand in the heat of summer and contract in the chill of winter. This ensured they left gaps in all the right places, so that inexorable expansion and contraction would not turn the doghouse wobbly over time. The students also designed a system to collect rainfall on the roof and drain it into a dog dish near the door.
Once they had it built, Fiala tested it with an infra-red temperature gauge. Sitting on black asphalt (temperature: 98 degrees), the white walls in the full sun read 82 degrees. Inside, the temperature was 76 degrees. But within a minute of opening the ingenuously designed vent system, the interior fell to 70 degrees.
The project yielded a brilliant variety of doghouse designs in the Payson class. The most efficient design proved to be a little mini pyramid, with corrugated tin sides, egg crates in the air spaces in the walls and a solar-powered fan. Another involved slats, notched like a log house and constructed entirely without nails. The class ultimately produced a creative mixture of designs and innovations, all constructed entirely from scavenged materials.
“The point is for the kids to understand you have to be conservative and still be energy saving at the same time,” said Alvarez, who brings his own construction experience to bear to get the students to think about design, insulation and bottom line cost all at once.
“A big deal in selling a house now is how efficient is this home.”
The class also relied on help from a variety of businesses who have long supporting the building trades program. Students scavenged materials from MPV Vinyl, Shreeve and Round Valley Roofing. Payson Jewelers even chipped in engraved dog tags.
The fun in the project, said Bloomfield, lay in the team approach to solving the countless little problems as they popped up. “I love the hands-on stuff, instead of just sitting in class. In this class, we came up against problems and we had to figure out ways to solve it.”