An artist’s rendering of UNLV’s entry in the 2017 Solar Decathalon.

Back in the Sun: UNLV Chosen to Compete in 2017 Solar Decathlon

Students to build sustainable, “age-in-place” home with consumer appeal for U.S. Department of Energy contest; UNLV team finished second overall in 2013.

After a two-year break, Team Las Vegas is back in the Solar Decathlon.

UNLV is one of just 16 university teams worldwide picked to compete in the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy contest that challenges students to design, build and operate homes that are energy-efficient, affordable and innovative. UNLV will work to build on its strong 2013 Solar Decathlon showing, where it finished first among American universities and second overall.

The team will now officially begin its year-plus journey to design, construct and test its home before transporting and reassembling it at the 2017 competition site, which will be announced soon.

An Age-in-Place Home

UNLV’s 964 square-foot, renewably powered 2017 entry will be a home designed to help residents age-in-place. It will feature emerging technology in health and medicine to uniquely complement the competition’s signature sustainable architectural innovations. Smart-home and health-monitoring technologies will combine to help older adults and those with disabilities stave off institutionalized care and remain in their homes. The team will also include plans for community and family support.

“Competitions like the Solar Decathlon combine research, education, and community engagement in unique and meaningful ways, which is critical for UNLV as we continue on our path to become a top tier national public research university,” said UNLV President Len Jessup. “Team UNLV’s approach will influence research and home design, but also has potential to address issues of health and housing facing the southwest region’s fast-growing and aging population.”

Students compete in 10 different areas – ranging from architecture and engineering to market appeal and communications – while gaining hands-on experience in clean energy design. The team that best blends affordability, consumer interest, and design excellence will prevail. Teams will also be competing for a total of $2 million in prize money for the first time in the contest’s history.

"The competition allows us to collaborate with students across disciplines and develop skills that just wouldn’t be possible in a normal classroom environment,” said Nasko Balaktchiev, architecture major and project manager for Team UNLV. “We’re learning more about our own field of study, becoming more knowledgeable in other areas, and designing a home to address an important societal issue.”  

Team Las Vegas is a multidisciplinary group of students, faculty and staff from architecture, engineering, health sciences, business, communications, and social work. The team will also recruit industry mentors and solicit sponsorships to offset costs associated with the competition.

Building on DesertSol's Success

UNLV’s Solar Decathlon 2013 entry, named DesertSol, finished second overall in the closest race in the competition’s history. More than 60 students, with help from faculty and industry mentors, proved with their successful project that energy neutral homes have the potential to thrive in the harsh Mojave Desert climate. The home now sits on permanent display as the Las Vegas Springs Preserve.

Nearly 100 percent of the 2013 participants are now employed in their chosen career fields, and several have returned as mentors of the 2017 team.

"Success in design and construction is about learning from experience and improving through iterations,” said Alexia Chen, a UNLV architecture grad and project manager of the 2013 team. “We received valuable advice from architecture alumni that contributed to our success in the 2013 competition. Now that we've been through the process, we are in the position to help the 2017 team learn from our successes and mistakes, and deliver a more refined project." 

But success stretches far beyond the competition, Chen said. The project forces students to break down academic silos, think on their feet, and lead diverse teams – all necessary skills in the workplace.

“Solar Decathlon was a real-life project where we learned to work with people from other fields, understand how they think and what they specialize in,” Chen said. “We learned to keep an open mind, to respect each other's expertise and different perspectives, and to grow together as a team.”

Team Las Vegas is planning a community kickoff event later this spring. Learn more about the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, and about UNLV’s 2013 home, DesertSol

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