Key Points

Empowering Sustainability: How CMTA's Solar Decathlon Alumni are Creating Professional Paths

On April 19-21, 40 collegiate teams from around the globe will convene in Golden, Colorado, to present their innovative building designs at the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon® 2024 Design Challenge final competition event.

Though only one team will claim the prestigious Grand Winner title for each of the 10 Solar Decathlon contests, every participant will walk away with invaluable industry experience that sets them up for success. Providing unparalleled real-world training for the next generation of green building professionals, the Solar Decathlon propels students to the forefront of the sustainable building sector.

As the lead event sponsor, Legence recognizes the unique value Solar Decathlon alumni bring to the industry. Numerous alumni have found their professional homes within our offices nationwide, largely due to the competition’s alignment with our mission to improve the built environment. Notably, CMTA’s Cincinnati Office boasts nine Solar Decathlon alumni, all proud graduates of the University of Cincinnati. In anticipation of the upcoming competition, we sat down with five alumni—Colby McConnell, Riley Renner, Wyatt Ross, Michael Stearns, and Hunter Swope—in CMTA’s Cincinnati Office to discuss their experiences and the pivotal role the competition played in their professional development. Laying a foundation of sustainable and energy-efficient building design principles, these competitions not only presented a challenging and fun experience but also a seamless transition into the industry and their current roles at CMTA.

Teammates Turned Coworkers

Before they were CMTA coworkers, Building Performance Engineers Wyatt Ross, PE, CEM, PVA, and Hunter Swope, EIT, LEED GA, were Solar Decathlon teammates. They joined forces to compete in the 2017 Race to Zero competition—now part of the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge—where they achieved semifinalist recognition for their single-family home design. Hunter reflected on the determination of the team, remembering their ambition in taking on challenges beyond their experience. “[I have] a lot of good memories from the [competition], but the fact that Wyatt and I decided to work together…and didn’t technically have the experience to do what we were doing was awesome,” Hunter commented. “We work together to this day, and the Solar Decathlon was the start of all that.”

Wyatt recalled the reward of seeing the team’s growth throughout the competition, forming a close-knit group through their shared learning curve. “I definitely remember the sleepless nights filled with laughter and caffeine as we worked on these projects,” Wyatt said. “Over the course of several months, we learned so much as a team, and the comradery that was built during that growth was priceless.”

Reflecting on his Solar Decathlon involvement, Wyatt stated, “The Solar Decathlon, Race to Zero, and the Solar District Cup had a tremendous impact on my career readiness coming out of school. They are where I gained some of my earliest exposure to applying building sciences to emerging problems. These competitions offered me experiences, connections, and a vision for where I wanted my career to go.”

Colby McConnell, EIT, LEED GA, also highlighted the competition’s influential role in his professional development, sharing, “The Solar Decathlon gave me the first great opportunity to think holistically about building design, which continues to be instrumental in my career.” Participating in the 2022 Design Challenge, Colby advanced to the semifinals in the Multifamily Housing Division with then-teammates, now-CMTA colleagues Owen Green and Megan Hagenbarth. Their shared history and commitment to innovation not only laid the foundation for their professional careers but also cemented a vibrant teamwork dynamic that continues to thrive today.

Shaping Industry Leaders

The Solar Decathlon aims to inspire students worldwide to enter the clean energy workforce, mitigating climate change through resilient and sustainable buildings. As a national leader in high-performance, sustainable design, Legence’s mission to decarbonize the built environment by creating energy-efficient, healthy buildings closely aligns with the competition’s goals. By introducing participants to the green building sector and emphasizing the importance of energy-efficient buildings, the Solar Decathlon equipped our alumni with the necessary skills to transition into their current roles at CMTA, a Legence company.

Reflecting on her experience in the 2023 Design Challenge, CMTA Building Performance Engineer, Riley Renner, shared how the competition was instrumental in shaping her professional trajectory. “The [Solar Decathlon] helped me realize that I could have a successful and meaningful career in something that I am passionate about,” Riley said. “It gave me a lot of hope for our future and the Earth’s future because I saw a lot of really intelligent and passionate people working on complex issues to solve the climate crisis. It made me realize how vital my current job is and how I can help shape my corner of the world. It was an inspirational experience.”

In her role, Riley focuses on decarbonization plans and energy modeling, consulting clients on how to reduce their energy consumption and carbon footprint. With a passion for improving the built environment—a passion fueled by her involvement in the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge—she now gets to effectuate tangible, positive changes in her professional career.

CMTA Electrical Engineer Michael Stearns, EIT, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP, had a similar experience in the 2022 Design Challenge. When describing the competition’s integration with his CMTA co-op experience, Michael said, “The Solar Decathlon went hand-in-hand with what I learned as a co-op. What we do here at CMTA is what the Solar Decathlon is meant to teach.” Building on these experiences, he now focuses on holistic building design, integrating renewable energy systems within conventional electrical distributions. Thinking back on how the competition has impacted his work, he shared, “CMTA is the perfect fit…Being able to care about the whole building and see your design actually built—there just isn’t anything else like it.”

As Building Performance Engineers at CMTA, Colby, Hunter, and Wyatt continue to drive sustainability in the built environment. Colby’s role involves analyzing energy use, carbon emissions, thermal comfort, and daylighting quality to create high-performance, sustainable buildings. In parallel, Hunter leverages building performance simulations and energy modeling, focusing on integrating artificial intelligence into the A/E/C industry. Echoing the principles of the Solar Decathlon Design Challenge in his day-to-day, Hunter stated, “Building performance is baked into [CMTA’s] design process, meaning we try to make every project have some type of energy goal.” With a foundation in holistic, energy-efficient building principles, these Solar Decathlon alumni have made significant contributions to the CMTA team and play a pivotal role in creating a more sustainable built environment.

Advice for Current Students

We asked our Solar Decathlon alumni to share competition and career advice for current participants. Here’s what they want competitors to know:

  • Time on task is the biggest indicator of success on [Design Challenge] projects. It’s a big time commitment, but you get out of it what you put into it.
  • When presenting, be sure to touch on every portion of the building, with an emphasis on—HVAC, electrical, and architecture.
    • Check out our blog, Ready, Set, Present! Expert Tips on Acing the Solar Decathlon Presentation from Legence, for more presentation tips.
  • Be creative, think outside the box, and most importantly, do what suits the project. Don’t try to add or subtract components because you think they’re a cool feature. Design with intent for the client and do what makes sense for the program, climate zone, and site.
  • A hand-written thank you note goes a long way. Some of the best opportunities I’ve ever received have been because I took ten minutes to write a thank you note.
  • Always look for opportunities for ways your professional role can work towards a lower-carbon future. Keeping that mission centered in your career will help you push the envelope and change the culture of your team, your company, and this industry.

Legence is proud of our Solar Decathlon alumni and the contributions they bring to our team. As the 2024 Design Challenge final competition approaches, we’re excited to see what the next generation of participants bring to the table for their communities, the industry, and the built environment as they enter the green building workforce.

View our careers page and student job portal.

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