Brain Power for a Better Home

UNLV’s Solar Decathlon team is building a house that will leave you with energy to burn

It’s 2 p.m. on a Friday, and about 20 students are gathered around large work tables in the Building Technologies Lab in UNLV’s School of Architecture, poring over technical drawings and 3-D models of a small house. The wall behind them is plastered with colorful scale drawings, elevations and cutaways showing the innards of the structure, but the students’ focus is on the table in front of them.

The students are up against a hard deadline to produce a 30-page summary of all the building’s systems in less than a week, which wouldn’t be a difficult task if they were designing a typical Las Vegas home; there’s nothing revolutionary about plywood framing, stucco siding, a tile roof and a huge air conditioner to keep it all livable. But this team isn’t working on another tract home; it’s competing with students from 19 other universities around the globe to design a house of the future using the technology of the present. The house has to be heated and air-conditioned; it has to have all the expected amenities, such as a computer, refrigerator and a TV; it has to be less than 1,000 square feet. And it has to be powered by solar energy.

It also has to easily come apart, be shipped to Irvine, Calif., and then be reassembled so it can be judged against the other entries from such places as Stanford and Caltech in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2013 Solar Decathlon. The UNLV team was one of only 20 worldwide chosen for the decathlon. “It’s a very serious competition,” says Eric Weber, an assistant professor of architecture and the team’s principal investigator.

Team Las Vegas decided early on that it wanted to build a home for our climate that could be habitable completely off the grid. That means using solar arrays for power and hot water, screen walls for shading, and thinking hard about things like where the windows will go and what the roof will be made of. The team also wanted to solve a design problem that, for many, ultimately becomes a quality-of-life problem, Weber says.

“We have an aging population, and we are also a retirement destination. Most of our homes are not designed very well for people to age in place. It is a traumatic event when people have to give up their homes. To me that sounds like a design failure. If we haven’t designed a home they can stay in, we haven’t done our job.”

What they’ve come up with is an 800-square-foot home for two people divided into a bedroom/bathroom area, and a living area. Its solar systems help heat the home via hot water pumped through tubing in the floor. Outside patio areas are shaded by metal screens cut in a pattern that emulates light as you’d see it filtered through Mesquite trees, in homage to the desert environment. Inside is an open floor plan with few doors, which makes the home seem spacious and reduces obstacles for those in wheelchairs. The design complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act, so things such as counters, cabinets, faucets and the oven are also accessible to the wheelchair bound.

“It is for everyone,” Weber says. “If it meets your needs throughout your lifetime, you don’t have to sell it.”

You could, in theory, plop this house in the middle of the Mojave Desert and be cool in summer and warm in the winter. You’d probably have to have your water trucked in—but not very much of it, because the house uses very little and recycles what it does consume.

If 800 square feet sounds too small, you may have lived in the suburbs too long. Actually, you may have lived in the contemporary iteration of the suburbs too long, because as Weber notes, the houses in the original suburbs, in Levittown, N.Y., were only 750 square feet. “You’d be surprised,” Weber says. “With the McMansions in the last 20 to 30 years, we’ve gotten away from designing small, livable spaces.”

Team Las Vegas will spend the rest of the year working on the plans, then begin building the house in January. The house has to be finished by the summer of 2013, then torn down and loaded on three trucks to be shipped to California for the contest in October 2013. This is the first time UNLV has been accepted in the competition, and Team Las Vegas will spend close to $1 million to participate—the materials and design of the house cost about $320,000; the rest of the money is for building and tearing it down twice and transporting it to Southern California. The funds come from UNLV, the UNLV Foundation and donations from private companies.

“When you do the calculations, it works out to $350 a square foot,” Weber says. “The last custom house I designed was $350 a square foot, and that house didn’t have to travel down the highway. And it didn’t have a solar array on it, either.”

The only thing up for grabs in the Solar Decathlon is bragging rights and some choice résumé lines for the students who worked on the project. But as nice as it would be to see UNLV beat out teams from Stanford and Caltech, there is a higher purpose to the design: rethinking housing in Southern Nevada.

“If we demonstrate that these things are possible,” Weber says, “we can begin to change the culture of the place.”