Most summer-break stories involve dayclub meanderings, close encounters of the inebriated kind and too much Netflix. But UNLV architecture and engineering majors Nasko Balaktchiev and Adam Betemedhin’s summer story will be about building a fully functional, 990-square-foot solar house.
The house—dubbed Sinatra Living for its old Vegas aesthetic—is a two-years-in-the-making project that’s finally starting to live up to its name. In early July, the house’s construction site, located on UNLV’s Paradise campus, reflected a project in its infancy. But a month later, Sinatra Living stands as a brick-and-mortar manifestation of an idea coming gracefully together. And if you ask Balaktchiev, he’ll tell you that the home is not only stylish, but it’s “the last house you’ll ever have to buy.”
As project manager and engineering lead, respectively, Balaktchiev and Betemedhin have teamed up with the brightest minds of UNLV’s health sciences, business, fine arts, engineering, architecture and hotel schools to create Sinatra Living. But they’re not just swinging hammers in 101-degree heat for street cred and bad tan lines. They’re doing it for the U.S. Department of Energy, which picked UNLV to compete in the biennial Solar Decathlon, an international competition that challenges colleges to create energy-efficient homes, to be judged on factors including curb appeal, market potential and smart energy production.
“It’s to inspire individuals to look at sustainability, look at renewable energy and shows that it’s something that’s feasible, it’s something that students can do,” Betemedhin says of the 15-year-old competition.
UNLV enjoys a successful history at Solar Decathlon. Back in 2013, the university not only won first place nationally, but also took second place in the world with its 754-square-foot vacation home, DesertSol (now at Springs Preserve). This year, the competition will be held in Denver on October 5–15, with a $300,000 prize for the first-place team.
“Every [team] in the competition has a different market that they essentially try to sell the house to,” Balaktchiev explains. While teams like UC Davis and Alabama are creating houses that address hyper-local issues such as droughts and tornadoes, UNLV’s going national with an idea inspired more by people than region or climate.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that between now and 2050, the U.S. will see considerable growth in its elderly population. By 2030, 20 percent of U.S. residents will be 65 and older, which not only impacts social security programs and Medicare, but also families who need to care for their loved ones as they grow older. That’s where UNLV’s aging-in-place design comes in. “It’s targeted toward people 55 and over,” Balaktchiev says, “but if you were younger, you could buy this house, and stay in it for the rest of your life and not have to do any retrofit.”
An aging-in-place design is far from the nursing home environment you might imagine. Picture this instead: a midcentury modern home, plucked from the iconic neighborhood of Paradise Palms, complete with a wraparound deck, six-foot roof overhangs and enough smart technology to keep residents as safe as they are satisfied.
More renderings of Sinatra Living. Photos by Anthony Mair
The house does not run completely off solar (Decathlon rules require it to be hooked up to a utility grid), but a majority of its electrical features, including lights and air conditioning, do thanks to the photovoltaic solar panels covering its sloped roof. “Not only do we have full energy through the solar panels, but we can also heat all the home’s hot water with [a solar thermal system],” Balaktchiev explains. “It’s not installed yet, but on top of the floor, we’re also going to have a radiant heating system so that hot water can actually be pumped through the floor to heat the home.”
Excess energy is also stored in a Tesla battery, which, when discharged during the hottest parts of the day, reduces energy costs and operates as a backup source in case of a grid outage, an event that could be hazardous for an elderly person who relies on critical support systems. And that’s just one of the features tailored to an older audience: In addition, the house will have adjustable cabinetry and counters that are controllable by touch or voice command, as well as wheelchair accessibility, fall-detection sensors and an automation app that operates the house’s features remotely.
The smart house will also respond to environmental conditions to save energy. For example, “utilizing flux sensors to measure daylight and adjust artificial lighting accordingly,” Betemedhin says, will reduce energy waste. And an automated wall partition will roll over the home’s east windows to produce shade, but also capture sunlight in the winter.
It’s hard to believe that such a sophisticated, well-conceived home could be student-made, but that’s the point. Solar Decathlon challenges students to take on the ultimate learning experience. And many, Balaktchiev says, have a higher chance of walking away with jobs in the solar and renewable energy field because of it.
Toward the end of September, team UNLV will break Sinatra Living down, ship it to Denver and, over nine days, put it back together to undergo 10 tests. Everything will be juried and measured, from the house’s energy performance and architecture to how comfortable dinner party guests feel in it. Each house can earn up to 1,000 points, but Betemedhin says he’s seen fractions of points turn the competition.
Yet with two months to go, he and Balaktchiev appear more focused than ever. They’ve tasted victory before, and with team sponsors such as NV Energy Foundation and Switch and in-kind donations from various other businesses, they’ve got the support. Whether they win or not, it doesn’t matter: The team has already done its job by putting UNLV on the map as a university that inspires and encourages innovation .