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September 21, 2014

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UNLV’s Solar Decathletes are creating the house of the future

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Imagine relaxing in a home that is completely self-sufficient and looks great to boot. UNLV is working on making this rendering a reality for the 2013 Solar Decathlon, an international competition that is all about sustainable design. Go Rebels.

At least one construction project is thriving in Las Vegas. It may only be 730 square feet, but it packs a punch.

Called “Autonomy House,” the proposed home was designed by students and professors at UNLV to be completely energy neutral—harnessing the desert sun for power, filtering rain and gray water for everyday use, and sequestering carbon in the landscaping. But sustainability isn’t the only draw. The home’s aesthetic reflects mod architectural trends, accessibility considerations and the Mojave’s spare beauty, and its potentially "zero-energy" performance means it would operate off the traditional public utility grid.

The proposal is so impressive it was selected among only 20 worldwide to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2013 Solar Decathlon. The competition has been driving green innovation at universities since 2002, and the fall showdown in Irvine, California, will have UNLV debuting against such juggernauts as Stanford and Cal Tech, not to mention international contenders from Austria, Canada and the Czech Republic.

“For 2013, we reviewed twice as many proposals as we could accept—and all were well written and compelling in their own right. We are so pleased with the caliber of the 20 new teams. They represent a passionate, dedicated group full of ideas,” Solar Decathlon director Richard King wrote on the competition blog.

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Beyond the Weekly
Team Las Vegas home.
Solar Decathlon home.

UNLV’s “Team Las Vegas” has about a year and a half to perfect and fabricate its concept, module by module. While members come primarily from disciplines within architecture, engineering, business and communications, their ranks include an artist, an anthropologist, set and interior designers, a biologist, a historian and a welder. Their proposal states that this diversity, coupled with an innate appreciation for environmental challenges, will contribute to the team’s success in 2013.

Graduate student Alexia Hsin Chen, one of the student leads on the project, says community partnership is another key factor. Industry advisers are essential to transforming the renderings into realities, and they currently include Lucchesi Galati Architects, Marnell Architects, NV Energy, Bombard Renewable Energy, Helix Electric, Pulte Homes, GigaCrete Green Building Products, Southern Nevada Water District and the Las Vegas Water District.

Aided by all this expertise and that of distinguished faculty on the team, Chen and her fellow students will send a message about the accessibility of the home of the future.

“The point of the competition is to showcase what a house, just a simple residence, can be with all this different technology integrated,” Chen says, “show the public that solar panels can be integrated into architecture in an aesthetically pleasing way and perform wonderfully for you. … It’s very important to educate people about how much energy homes are using.”

Jane Cretty, a junior majoring in civil engineering, remembers learning about that very thing by watching the Solar Decathlon on TV. Also a student leader for Team Las Vegas, Cretty has been involved in UNLV’s effort to make the competition since she was a freshman.

“We really need to show people what we’re capable of,” she says. UNLV may not have the reputation of some of the other Solar Decathletes, but Cretty insists the programs her team represents are top notch. Autonomy House will demonstrate their collective skills and dedication at the Solar Decathlon. After that, the home may become a permanent office for a Vegas-based sustainability organization, or it might be installed somewhere on campus for further research and to inspire future students to keep innovating.

Thanks to her involvement in the project, Cretty is considering a master’s program at UNLV. The specific thrust of the Solar Decathlon may not play a significant role in her future work, but it has deeply affected the way she sees our constructed world.

“It definitely gives me a better outlook on how to be more economical and efficient," she says. "That way you’re not wasting materials or using materials that are harmful to the environment—just being more conscious in general.”

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