The House That UNLV Built

The Solar Decathlon team shows the world how to build a smart desert home.

With a home that stood out for its consumer appeal and design excellence, UNLV beat out every other American university in the prestigious Solar Decathlon competition. The U.S. Department of Energy competition challenged university students to design, build, maintain, and market a sustainable solar-powered home.

UNLV's entry, dubbed DesertSol, took second overall, just behind Vienna University of Technology in Austria. It was the closest race in the competition's 11-year history; less than five points out of a possible 1,000 separated the top two teams. UNLV bested 18 other teams, including those from Stanford and the universities of Southern California and North Carolina at Charlotte. Third place went to the Czech Republic team.

DesertSol took two years and a team of more than more than 60 students to complete. They consulted with faculty and industry advisors -- including architecture professor Eric Weber and Thomas Piechota, interim vice president for research -- but had to construct the home themselves using commercially available components. The team also had secure dozens of sponsors, including NV Energy and PKMM Inc., which both contributed more than $100,000 to the project.

The prefab home was built on campus, during the heat of the summer, and then moved to Irvine, Calif., for the competition and public exhibit. Afterward, the home traveled back to Las Vegas and will become a permanent exhibit at the Springs Preserve attraction.

  • Students Jinger Zeng of mechanical engineering and Alexia Chen of architecture led the Solar Decathlon team. The contest rated student-designed and -built homes on their affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence as well as optimal energy production and efficiency. The UNLV team took top honors in market appeal, second in communications, and third in engineering.
  • A custom screen along one section of the deck filters the harsh summer sun but can be retracted in the winter to allow the sun to warm the home. The metal screen is perforated to recreate the shading effect of the feathery leaves of a mesquite tree.
  • DesertSol is a one-bedroom vacation home for desert escapes. Its open floorplan, built-in entertainment center, and foldaway doors to a large deck optimize living space. Strategic window placement promotes cross ventilation. Solar panels built into the deck overhangs were strategically placed to shade the home from the high summer sun but allow light in the winter.
  • Water-conserving features include low-flow fixtures and a multipurpose water system that combines plumbing and fire sprinklers and eliminates the need for high-maintenance back-flow preventers. An outdoor water feature is both functional and beautiful. It captures runoff from desert downpours and stores it for landscape irrigation use. The water and temperature controls can be accessed remotely through a smart phone or tablet.
  • Students react as awards are announced. The team consisted of more than 60 core members. The undertaking required a cross-disciplinary team to not only design and build the home, but also market it. Students from business, liberal arts, urban affairs, and fine arts worked along with engineering and architecture to create the home.
  • DesertSol combines compelling architecture with advanced engineering to create a comfortable, ultra-efficient 754-square-foot home. Pre-weathered materials were chosen to endure the desert climate. All of the materials in the prefab home are commercially available.

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