To compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon is an accomplishment in itself. The worldwide submission and selection process is demanding and keen. A team from the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) was selected to compete in 2013 and again in 2017. In 2020, UNLV is 1 of only 10 universities in the world to participate in the biennial Design Build Challenge.
The Solar Decathlon is a multi-faceted competition that began in 2002 and continues to evolve. In 2020, the Design Build Challenge teams are broken into 2 divisions, National Showcase and Local Build. All teams compete against each other regardless of division and will display their designs as part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival National Showcase from June 25 to July 5, 2020 on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
The distinction between the two divisions is that Local Build teams design and build operational, net-zero houses in their communities and bring smaller models of the projects to the nation’s capital next summer. National Showcase competitors like UNLV will design and build fully-functional, 400 to 600 square foot, energy independent dwellings in their home states and then disassemble the structures and transport them to DC where they will be reassembled for operational testing, various judging, and exhibition.
Whether teams participate in the Design or Design Build challenge, they are evaluated across 10 areas of inquiry, a true decathlon. Projects are rated for energy performance, engineering, financial feasibility and affordability, resilience, architecture, operations, market potential, comfort and environmental quality, innovation, and presentation.
Top-performing teams will also be invited to exhibit at the National Association of Home Builders International Builders Show in 2021.
In 2013, a UNLV team placed second overall with its DesertSol home. The 745 square foot dwelling is now a permanent part of the Springs Preserve Botanical Garden located a few miles from the Las Vegas Strip. DesertSol remains one of the best functional examples of sustainable living in the world.
Solar energy is DesertSol’s exclusive energy source and enables off-the-grid living without giving up a contemporary lifestyle. With the thoughtful use of electric power, solar panels create a surplus of energy. Low flow fixtures and appliances parse water like gold. Strategic window placement maximize passive solar heating in the winter and cross-flow ventilation during warmer seasons. The small building is a treasure trove of resource-stingy building technology.
In 2017, The team took first place for Innovation and second place for both Engineering and Architecture with their Sinatra Living home.
Sinatra Living was designed to meet the needs of retired empty-nesters who want to age in place in the warm, arid Las Vegas region. Students convened a focus group of retirees to learn about the needs of aging people before beginning design.
What is Good Design?
According to the 2020 competition guidelines, the “winners of the Solar Decathlon competition are the teams that best blend technology, market potential, and design excellence with smart energy efficiency and renewable energy production.”
Guidelines ask that entrants “demonstrate how the techniques, products, and solutions integrated into their competition entries can significantly impact the buildings market.”
In 2018, the Solar Decathlon merged with the Race to Zero competition, which added an enhanced degree of emphasis on net-zero energy independence to the Decathlon.
According to Sam Rashkin chief architect for the Building Technologies Office of the US Department of Energy, open layouts are encouraged with good indoor and outdoor linkages. There are 12 systems in 3 broad groups that need to be integrated.
Infrastructure – to include structural elements, HVAC, plumbing, and electric. Regarding solar panels, winning designs will integrate the panels and not just tack them on a roof. As an example, the panels might serve as the roof of a porch.
The mass of the house itself and especially windows must be oriented and arranged to maximize solar heating performance and cross flow of breezes. Taking advantage of view opportunities is part of good design.
Livability – furniture systems, storage, lighting, and smart home controls are considered. In an online presentation, Rashkin asks students to think about the accommodation automobile designers make for storage in cars when they decide where in their project homes to store brooms, shovels, and off-season clothing.
Performance – meeting off-the-grid energy needs is a core criteria. Water management is important too, especially for homes in warm, arid regions. Resilience or disaster resistance is judged. Construction cost savings is evaluated. Is the dwelling the right size for its intended occupants? Is the design as simple and effective as possible? Does the plan cater to the standard dimensions of construction materials, which make it easier to build with less waste?
Off the Shelf Technology
A key element of the completion is that the houses are not reliant on technology yet to be developed. The dwellings are in large measure graded on their degree of real-world functionality. Teams cannot present functionality with technology yet to be developed.
Eric Weber is an architect and an associate professor of architecture at UNLV. He was a faculty adviser on the 2013 team and expressed excitement to be back in 2020. Weber said the dwellings are meant to push current technological limits and ultimately serve as examples of what we are currently capable of doing.
“The criteria change from one competition to the next, but fundamentally the goal is to design and build houses that actually work, that actually use solar power that use off the shelf technology in innovative and interesting and compelling ways to show that this is something that is accessible in our contemporary day. It’s not science fiction. It’s not using stuff that can’t be applied to the real world projects. Quite contrary is true.
“The Department of Energy system has a specific requirement that anything that we use has to be currently available on the market. So it’s more of a what I would call it integration competition than it is a blue sky, science fiction kind of competition. I think that’s very important for people to understand that everything a team uses is made out of components and technologies that are available on the market today.”
In addition to the design criteria set forth in the contest guidelines, Design Build teams are instructed to identify a target market. Veteran homelessness and suicide rates are painful and recurring news stories across the nation. The 2020 UNLV Design Build team identified the traumatized veterans returning from decades of ongoing wars as their intended occupants. The UNLV project is called Mojave Bloom and will be meticulously considered sanctuary and place of healing for veterans who suffer the many effects of wartime trauma.
The building and its many appointments will be designed for particular psychological and emotional responses, ease of accessibility and more. Eric Weber is a Desert Storm era veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.
“When we were doing our initial design, we had five veterans and the family members of veterans on our design team, and they (the students) came to me with this. Of course, I was supportive of that because when you look at the numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans coming back from these wars. Afghanistan is the longest war in the history of the United States. A lot of these men and women come back with challenges, and those challenges make it difficult for them to reintegrate into society. My students, to their amazing credit, are interested in making a positive difference, so that’s what drove a lot of the things we’re doing with the house.”
Dwellings with an inner courtyard have a long history in desert regions of the world from the Middle East, across southern Europe to the southwestern United States. Light filters onto Mojave Bloom’s inner courtyard through a canopy of bifacial photovoltaic panels. Eric Weber explains.
“The basic design of the house is a large rectangular box with a bite out of it for the courtyard. Then there are these large swinging gates that open and close,” Weber explained. “That courtyard is surrounded by glass. The east and west sides of it open completely. The ability to do that can transform that environment, so that’s our intent. And then of course, we have two operable windows on the north side in the in the bedroom sleeping space and in the kitchen area, and then one on the south side, also in the dining area, so we should get really good cross ventilation through there.”
For the 2020 UNLV team, the courtyard plays an important therapeutic role in the house’s design.
“If this were not something I had to ship all the way to Washington, DC and back, our configuration would be a little bit different. We’d have a deeper courtyard,” Weber said. “But we still wanted to capture this idea of the outdoor space enclosed within that. That you actually walk through this protected space into the house actually makes a lot of sense therapeutically for the veteran who might be struggling with PTSD. Having that transitional zone is very important, and then having the courtyard be something that’s glass that you can actually see through the entire house from the inside is something that was very important therapeutically.
“If they’re having an episode, they need to be able to see around immediately and do a quick glance and say, ‘Okay, I’m safe, there’s nobody else in the house. It must be something else,’ and that helps them.
“One of the things you might see is that we have acoustic absorbers on the ceiling. That is something that helps … having a very acoustically quiet environment is calming and is very important. There are numerous decisions that are driven by this research.”
A Warm Design
“When you’re talking about contemporary architecture, a lot of times they (architecture clients) perceive it as being cold, and they’re not talking about it in terms of the temperature,” Weber said. “What they’re really talking about is the way it sounds most of the time. When you walk into a modern house it has echoes and stuff. Often it sounds, with all those hard materials, like an echo chamber, so the sound equivalent is almost like being in an auto body shop or something.”
Weber described that the 2013 DesertSol house included an acoustic absorber that housed the TV and other equipment and also absorbed echoes. Typically big, heavily upholstered furniture and carpet attenuate sound, but for a veteran in a wheel chair, carpet and bulky couches are obstacles. Weber said students have created a carpet-less and uncluttered environment that is also devoid of unnerving echoes.
“In this house, we’re using similar principles and different techniques. We’re actually absorbing the sound through the shingled ceiling that you’re seeing in the renderings. Those panels are made of a shredded wood fiber, a product called Tectum. It’s not a new product and has actually been on the market for a long time. It’s all made out of recycled material and it’s somewhat absorptive.
“The other thing we’re doing is by the geometry that you’re seeing. The reason it folds and things is because the gaps between the panels and the spaces between are all going to be filled with shredded denim insulation that is made from blue jeans, the manufacturer of blue jeans. It’s a very good absorber of sound and I’ve used it before. It’s a very effective recycled material that will dramatically reduce echoes in that space. You can have the clean modern look with wood flooring and all that stuff, but not have it sound like it has a lot of echoes. So my point in mentioning that is that there are often more than one way to solve these issues.”
Weber said the university is working with the City of Las Vegas to approve a yet to be disclosed location for Mojave Bloom. The team has characterized the proposed site’s environment and taken those manifold factors into design consideration with therapeutic intent.
“We did look very closely at prevailing winds and knowing the sun angles, of course, is very important,” Weber said. “The idea is that you should be able to open it up or modulate how much you open windows and doors, and then use the large swinging gates that we have now to manage the amount of sun or wind coming into the house, so that it actually is something that empowers the occupant to adjust the environment to their own needs.
“That’s something that for me personally is very important but it’s also something that is a good therapeutic thing. Being able to adjust the environment to meet your own needs is a key part of the therapeutic intent behind the project.”
Weber said the interdisciplinary team’s landscape architect and another colleague who specializes in healthcare interiors added the living wall. Low water plants grow in boxes in a wall adjacent to the inner courtyard. A hydroponic system recirculates water, which removes heat from the atmosphere and lightly washes the small house with the sound of trickling water. Weber said the living wall is centrally located for therapeutic reasons.
“There is a lot of the research that my colleagues from healthcare interiors presented that shows being in the presence of plants is very helpful. It tends to be calming and tends to help moderate one’s psychological state. That’s a thing that a lot of us know intuitively. That’s one of the reasons why so many people have gardens. It can be very psychologically healing as well as it can be really quite beautiful.”
Interdisciplinary Team and Lessons
Students and faculty from architecture, engineering, business, urban affairs, and communications will design, construct and then test Mojave Bloom over the next 8 months, a team of some 50 people in all.
Mojave Bloom gives students an opportunity to learn some of the real-world skills that are difficult to simulate in a typical learning environment. In professional practice, architects and engineers work hand-in-hand with landscape architects, interior designers and many other core and tangential disciplines related to the creation of a building. Architecture students are often and understandably focused on their discipline specific requirements, so the Decathlon gives them opportunity to experience important collaborative aspects of designing, building and selling a cutting-edge home.
“One of the things that I absolutely love about this competition and why I was interested in doing it again is because it gives the university and the students the opportunity to reach out to their community. Communications is critical in that,” Weber said when asked about communications students and faculty participating in the Challenge. “Being able to tell that story to people who are outside your discipline is critical to the university’s missions and to their own disciplines.
“In order for us to effect positive change in our communities and in the state as a whole is by helping people to understand the importance and the value of what we do. That’s part of the university’s mission, but it’s also part of the team’s mission here with this project, so it’s absolutely essential to have good communications, to have a website team that actually is currently designing our website which should be online very shortly, and to have a social media person. This is not my area of expertise at all,” Weber laughed before adding that perhaps the biggest lesson is learning how to be a team player.
“The great things for architects and architecture students to learn is that you don’t necessarily have to be an expert in every single part of what you do. What you do is you put together a team of very talented people who know their specific area, and then we (faculty advisers) sort of act as a stage manager or a conductor, if you will.
“It’s absolutely critical that students learn that you don’t do it alone. Good work requires teamwork. The earlier you learn that the better your work will be. You’ll be happier. Your clients will be happier. Your community will be happier. Developing and having an ego and saying I have all the answers is usually a recipe for bad results. If they learn nothing else from the competition, that’s a critical lesson.”