Building on strong showings in 2013 and 2017, UNLV was one of just 11 universities worldwide chosen to compete in the 2020 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. The international contest challenges university student teams to design, build and operate solar-powered homes that are energy-efficient, affordable and attractive.
An interdisciplinary team of students and faculty from architecture, engineering, business, urban affairs, and communications will design, construct and then test the home over the next 18 months. Team Las Vegas will then transport and reassemble the home at the competition site in July 2020 on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“The Solar Decathlon offers UNLV students a unique opportunity to elevate their classroom experience through hands-on learning with university and industry partners, with a result that is truly amazing,” said UNLV President Marta Meana. “Our students have proven that they can compete with the very best in the world, and the 2020 team will continue this strong tradition with an innovative home design that’s both sustainable and community focused.”
Team Las Vegas’ 2020 entry is Desert Bloom, a 400- to 600-square-foot smart solar home conceptualized as a place of healing and respite for military veterans suffering the adverse effects of wartime trauma. There is a significant need for veteran housing in the Las Vegas Valley, where about 10 percent of the population has a military background.
Three student team members are military veterans, and the students will also gather feedback during focus groups with the community to aid design plans.
The goal is an energy-neutral, or "autonomous" home that will thrive in the harsh Mojave Desert climate and operate independent of all public utility services. The UNLV home will combine new and emerging off-shelf renewable energy systems, technologies, products and appliances that promote sustainability.
The competition couples hands-on experience for students with heightened awareness on an affordable and actionable solution to multiple social issues — homelessness, mental health, and an aging population — facing many communities, said team advisor Eric Weber, an associate professor of architecture and director of the school's David G. Howryla Design-Build Studio.
“A project like this also helps students work effectively across disciplines and make a connection between concept and reality, and how one negotiates this is crucial to their education and future professional practice,” said Weber.
Weber, a military veteran who is returning to the Solar Decathlon faculty mentor role he held in 2013, added that the competition’s focus on melding sustainable design with responsiveness to environmental changes into an easily assembled compact home teaches community members a lesson, too.
“The Decathlon is a way of helping people to integrate these things and demonstrate we’re capable of these things right now. It’s not some future thing. All of these home enhancements are things that can be done right now to make a difference.”
Building on Success
The Solar Decathlon challenges student teams in 10 categories, ranging from architecture and engineering to market appeal and communications. The team that best blends affordability, consumer interest, and design excellence will prevail.
Team Las Vegas will recruit industry mentors and solicit sponsorships to offset costs associated with the competition. Teams are also eligible for up to $130,000 each in cash awards for completing work in advance of the competition period.
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.
In 2017, the team’s entry — Sinatra Living, an “age-in-place” smart home with health-monitoring technologies to help older adults move safely in their environment, communicate with caregivers and social services, and ultimately remain in their homes longer — won first place in the Innovation contest, second place in the Engineering and Architecture contests, and placed eighth overall. Plans for permanent display are underway.