A Sustainable Entry

Fi­­ve UH Students Created an Art Car to Promote Sustainability

None of the students had ever been to the Houston Art Car Parade, but as it turned out, that wasn’t a problem. 

“I thought, ‘this is my thing,’” said Tygene Fox, who will graduate next month with an art degree. “I haven’t designed a car, but I’d like to.”

And so he and four other students set to work, chosen to design and build an art car as part of a project sponsored by CenterPoint Energy and organized by UH Energy. The team included students from the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, the Cullen College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and the Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts.

four photos of work in progress

Elliott Martinez, top, uses a jigsaw to cut the Cougarbolts that would be attached to the car's roof. Bottom: Aman Handa, left, and Hanish Narang make sure a car cover protects the car's paint job.

Elliott Martinez, top, uses a jigsaw to cut the Cougarbolts that would be attached to the car's roof. Bottom: Aman Handa, left, and Hanish Narang make sure a car cover protects the car's paint job.

The city of Houston provided the car, a 2012 all-electric Nissan Leaf – students were told the design had to be detachable, allowing the car to return to city service – and CenterPoint provided the $2,500 budget. 

It was, mechanical engineering major Hanish Narang said, an opportunity to challenge themselves outside the classroom. “Can I actually do something with the knowledge that I have?”

The students wanted real-life experience, a chance to demonstrate to themselves and to potential employers that they know both how to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom and to think outside the box as theory meets reality.

For the University, the interdisciplinary project met an important goal.

“In the real world,” said Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer at UH, “almost every challenge requires experts with multi-disciplinary expertise to come together, think about issues and solve the challenge.”

But universities, by their nature, train students to be subject matter experts – knowledgeable about engineering, for example, but not always about architecture, history, biology or art.

UH Energy works to bridge that divide through projects that draw students from different majors and different colleges to work collaboratively. That may involve designing an energy efficient house or, as in this case, designing and building an art car around a specific theme.

The projects strengthen students’ so-called “soft skills,” Krishnamoorti said, as they learn to work with other people in a way that capitalizes on the expertise of each member of the team. The projects also are intended to be fun.

That was the appeal for Dani Amparo, a junior history major who had never been to the Art Car Parade although she had seen art cars cruising around the city.

“I thought it would not really be a challenge, but an experience,” she said.

But as parade day approached, there were challenges, too.

four photos, tygene, elliott, aman and dani

Tygene Fox, top left, applies a protective coating to the Houston skyline, which will be affixed to the car's doors. Top right, Elliott Martinez works in the Burdett Keeland Jr. Design & Exploration Center. Bottom left, Aman Handa works to attach part of the design, while Dani Amparo, bottom right, stitches a plastic shoe rack that she is converting to hold flowers for the parade.

Tygene Fox, top left, applies a protective coating to the Houston skyline, which will be affixed to the car's doors. Top right, Elliott Martinez works in the Burdett Keeland Jr. Design & Exploration Center. Bottom left, Aman Handa works to attach part of the design, while Dani Amparo, bottom right, stitches a plastic shoe rack that she is converting to hold flowers for the parade.

Project guidelines called for the design to promote sustainability, the shepherding of the earth’s natural resources, an idea implicitly reinforced by the use of an electric car but otherwise subject only to the students’ imaginations.

Visions of nature are inherently “green,” they decided, and so the design incorporated fresh flowers and artificial turf, giving the car a back-to-nature vibe. They were in Houston, so an outline of the city skyline – drawn onto a thin plywood sheet and laser-cut at the University’s Burdett Keeland Jr. Design & Exploration Center – made sense. 

And they included two life-sized cougars, cut from a sheet of recycled plywood – sustainability, right? – the cougar bodies seguing into lightning bolts to signify electric power, just in case anyone wondered in whose house the car was designed.

Coogs House, of course.

Coogs House, in this case, was the garage bay of a building at the UH Technology Bridge, the technology commercialization and research park that became home base for six days as the students juggled working on the car with classes, internships and jobs. 

Each team member took charge of a task: Elliott Martinez, a master’s student in the industrial design program, designed and cut the Cougar-bolts, which would ultimately ride atop the car’s roof. Narang and Aman Handa, both junior mechanical engineering students, determined how to protect the car’s finish when attaching the designs and focused on the door panels.

Fox handled painting, and Amparo took charge of the back of the car, which ultimately was covered in flowers.

Martinez had heard of the parade, but he’d never been. A quick scan of the internet showed him how elaborate some of the entries can be.

With the constraints – less than a week to work, a detachable design that wouldn’t damage the car and a limited budget – he acknowledged the car might not be the most extravagant to roll down Allen Parkway. (The students wanted to come in under budget and said they ultimately spent less than $1,000.)

Still, as he held up one of the Cougar-bolts to gauge how it would look on the car, Martinez nodded in satisfaction.

“This is going to look badass,” he said.

If there were lessons to be learned, one was clearly the need to be nimble.

“We want to show that we can apply what we’ve learned in the classroom,” Handa said. “It’s a chance to show we can think on our feet.”

There was no shortage of opportunities for that, from realizing early on that their initial ideas about mounting the designs would require tweaking to learning that the car cover intended to protect the Leaf’s paint job was less than a perfect fit.

Handa and Narang took that in stride, figuring a cover ordered from a Nissan dealer would have been a better fit but would also have cost more. Instead, they measured, trimmed and made it work.

Friday dawned, the day before the parade, and the car sat in the bay of Building 14A, completely unadorned as a city worker arrived to take it back to a city lot, where it would be charged before Saturday’s parade start.

Show time.

Amparo took the clear plastic hanging shoe rack she had chosen to hold the flowers, slicing and stitching to ensure it was the right size. Each shoe pocket would be filled with a floral display before parade time.

Handa, Narang and Martinez teamed up to install the door panels, using an assortment of bungee cords and other gear to ensure the panels remained stable without being permanently affixed to the car. Last came the pièce de résistance, the leaping Cougar-bolts, mounted on a frame that sat on top of the roof and was anchored with a series of sturdy straps.

Not bad, they decided, for a project that five students, most of whom had never met before, came together to complete in six days. 

Not bad at all.

A communication by the University of Houston Division of University Marketing, Communication and Media Relations.

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