Practicing What He Teaches

By Carrie Benseler

mark walter stands in front of a house

Changing the world by raising awareness of renewable resources and sustainable design is both a personal and professional interest of Mark Walter.

Walter is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and, since 2007, he has been a faculty advisor to the university’s Solar Decathlon team, one of 20 student teams in the U.S. Department of Energy competition to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive.

“Working on the Solar Decathlon has changed my life. It has changed virtually everything, including the direction of some of my research and how I live at home,” says Walter.

Prior to becoming involved in the Solar Decathlon competition, Walter’s research focused mostly on mechanics of materials and material failure, specifically with fuel cells. While his research remains rooted in the study of material failure, in addition to fuel cells he has recently started investigating the durability of solar cells.

Walter hopes students will gain a sense of competitiveness and effective multi-disciplinary teamwork experiences during the Solar Decathlon project. However, the No. 1 skill he wants them to learn is how to incorporate and promote sustainable living in their own lives.

Matt O’Kelly, ’10 ME, who is working with Walter as he earns his master’s degree in mechanical engineering, approached Walter in 2008 with an interest in the Solar Decathlon competition.

“Mark was the first person I met on the project, and he immediately put me to work learning about HVAC, which I wasn’t extremely familiar with at the time,” says O’Kelly. “Because he pushed me, I was able to design the 2009 Solar Decathlon HVAC system. Being involved in this project was the pivotal moment in my undergraduate education at Ohio State.”

At home, Walter’s family recycles, has worked to lower electric bills, uses Energy Star appliances and fluorescent light bulbs, and tries to reuse materials whenever possible. Walter’s home even features a heat recovery ventilator, something that was also used in the 2009 Solar Decathlon house. In 2008, he contracted to have an addition built onto his nearly 100-year-old Grandview, Ohio, home that was environmentally designed with features such as triple-pane windows for natural light and an overhang device that helps keep the house cooler during summer months. Walter also grows vegetables at a community garden and has fruit trees in his yard.

Walter credits his green lifestyle to being concerned about his children’s future and frequently driving the trash-littered Long Island Expressway while growing up on the East Coast. Walter respects and identifies with his parents’ values and the culture he observed in Stuggart, Germany, during childhood trips to visit relatives.

“Things in America are made and sold so cheaply that we live in a throw-away society. The mindset in Europe and other countries around the world is to reuse and live more efficiently,” says Walter.

As an engineering undergraduate student at Brown University and engineering graduate student at CalTech, Walter never had the opportunity to participate in a project like the Solar Decathlon.

“Engineering education has changed drastically. I gave my first presentation one month before graduation. Now, engineering students are making presentations and working in teams one month into their freshman year,” says Walter.

With an already full plate of teaching two classes, mentoring five graduate students and conducting industry- and National Science Foundation-sponsored research, Walter says his schedule only allows time for Solar Decathlon work between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.

“I couldn’t do what I do without my family’s support,” says Walter. “This project is very rewarding for me. I’ve found a way to make a personal interest a professional interest.”

Check out the results of the 2011 Solar Decathalon here.