First you hear it, then you see it. UNLV students clad in hard hats and face masks huddle around a work table, collaborating on blueprint measurements. Just a few feet away, a generator cranks electricity to power tools wielded by more students inside and on the solar-paneled roof of a home they’re building from scratch.
A few months ago, this vast lot in east Henderson laid dormant, as the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the nation and halted construction on Mojave Bloom — UNLV’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy’s international 2020 Solar Decathlon Build Challenge. The biennial contest challenges colleges worldwide to design, construct, and operate homes powered by renewable energy. UNLV is among nine teams selected to vie for bragging rights as the best student builders in the world.
But as competition day approaches, the build site is again abuzz with activity.
The competition date, originally set for July 2020, was pushed to mid-April of this year, and Team Las Vegas is now racing against the clock to put the finishing touches on the 628-square-foot home.
“Collaborative projects like Solar Decathlon meld innovation with research, community partnership, and education to produce revolutionary designs that inspire sustainability, influence the next generation of homebuilders, and address pressing societal issues,” said team advisor and UNLV architecture professor Eric Weber. “Our students have done an exceptional job under the most demanding conditions imaginable and demonstrated extraordinary resilience in bringing this project to completion.”
The Solar Decathlon team must now retrofit Mojave Bloom with cameras to accommodate the competition’s pivot from an in-person showcase on D.C.’s Washington Mall to its first-ever virtual extravaganza, complete with guided tours for the public. The Solar Decathlon competition kicks off April 15. Judges will spend three days evaluating the homes in 10 categories, including innovation, comfort and environmental quality, energy efficiency, market potential, and affordability for the layperson to reproduce.
The pandemic posed challenges, including social distancing measures that limited the number of workers allowed to be on site, taking extra time to step up the cleaning of equipment and surfaces, and wearing masks while laboring under the infamously hot desert sun. But Jorge Medina, a graduate student who transitioned from the trade show industry two years ago to study architecture, said the entire experience — delays, adjustments, and all — has been worth it.
“The biggest gain would be learning to make decisions and helping us put our knowledge into practice,” said Medina, whose passion for environmentalism and sustainable design drew him to the project. “When you go into the workforce you have to have the theory under your belt. But when you go in with hands-on experience too, that really helps boost your resume.”
Building on strong showings in the 2013 and 2017 competitions, UNLV’s multidisciplinary team of nearly 50 students from architecture, engineering, and other fields hope that Mojave Bloom’s concept — a place of healing and respite for military veterans suffering the adverse effects of wartime trauma — will wow Solar Decathlon judges. There is a significant need for veteran housing in the Las Vegas Valley, where about 10% of the population has a military background — a topic dear to multiple members of the project’s architectural design team, who were military veterans and spouses of military members.
On March 31, Mojave Bloom will be transported by truck and crane through the streets of Las Vegas from its temporary construction site at the Henderson headquarters of project sponsor Xtreme Cubes to its permanent site at the downtown Las Vegas Healing Garden. The healing garden is an ideal site given the home’s focus on helping to pave the transition from post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury to healthy living, said Weber, who is also a military veteran.
The energy-neutral, or "autonomous," home is built to thrive in the harsh Mojave Desert climate and operate independent of all public utility services. Team Las Vegas incorporated new and emerging off-shelf renewable energy systems, technologies, products, and appliances that promote sustainability. The project’s organizational layout is based on prospect-refuge theory, which lowers stress by allowing one to see throughout the space and make the resident feel protected via gates and other elements that let the homeowner close off spaces when needed. Features include:
- Windows and skylights that provide an unobstructed view of surroundings and let in natural light, helping to regulate the body’s Circadian rhythms to aid sleep.
- The gated inner courtyard, which draws inspiration from the traditional Islamic sahn, is designed to shelter the resident from heat and noise, offer a place of healing and respite for veterans.
- Recaptured water circulating through the courtyard’s hydroponic system creates a meditative sound.
- Four monolithic walls offer a sense of solidity, safety, and enclosure, and provide an area for deep insulation, creating a barrier against exterior noise that may trigger PTSD.
- Rooftop solar panels and a thermal solar collector with glass tubes that can be adjusted to the sun’s movement.
- Radiant flooring that draws on solar energy to help heat the home and prevent dry air and skin.
- Galvanized steel siding to reflect heat away from the home’s interior.
- A highly sophisticated fresh air system that uses carbon and HEPA filters to remove allergens, as well as eutectic salts that alternately freeze and liquefy to help regulate room temperature, carbon dioxide, and optimum humidity levels.
The international competition educates the public about energy-saving residential designs. It is a student-run project that offers hands-on experience from the fundraising and sponsor partnership phase to architectural design to soliciting guidance from faculty members, industry mentors, and community supporters.
The 2020 Solar Decathlon was many team members’ first introduction to construction. Several said working on the project has taught them practical lessons, such as how to use tools. It also helped UNLV College of Engineering construction management major Alejandro Muñoz land several high-profile internships, including with McCarthy Building Companies, which built Allegiant Stadium. Former Las Vegas Strip bartender/server-turned-electrical engineering major Quinton Micheau said the competition has even inspired him to explore homebuilding as a hobby.
“It’s so easy to design on the computer — this million-dollar idea — but to make it come to life and do the installation and work with your own hands is special,” said Kelcie Cabrera, a senior majoring in interior design.