Tiny-home competition tests students’ efficiency, collaboration skills

Tiny homes on display in competition testing students' skills

Ten teams of college students entered SMUD's Tiny Home Competition in order to test and display energy efficiency.
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Ten teams of college students entered SMUD's Tiny Home Competition in order to test and display energy efficiency.

What better way to test the 10 tiny homes competing in a design and energy-efficiency challenge than subject them to a drenching rainstorm, says the man behind the competition.

“What they are getting right now is a real-life test,” Brent Sloan said Friday. Sloan is a solar specialist at SMUD, the municipal power provider behind the competition in which teams of college students test their design, engineering and construction skills through building tiny houses.

The public is invited to Parking Lot E of Cosumnes River College to see the competition tiny homes – staged with street signs, yard chairs and outdoor plants – from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Other learning opportunities, food trucks and kids zones will fill out the space.

The competition seeks to ride the popularity of the tiny-house movement, which rejects the bigger-is-better mainstream housing mentality in favor of economic freedom, personal mobility and infill housing. While some have a hard time distinguishing mobile homes and modular housing from tiny homes, tiny homes generally place a greater emphasis on personalized design.

The teams are competing for $30,000 in cash and other prizes. The winning team be announced Saturday morning.

Friday was judgment day. Groups of judges went from house to house rating homes and teams on design, energy efficiency, home utility and communications. Modeled after the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon, the program asks teams to use modern building techniques and technology to maximize energy efficiency. Since each home was limited to 400 square feet, teams could compete for a fraction of the cost of building a full-sized home.

Each team found or invented a client for whom to customize the home.

“We want to provide the same education experience at one-tenth the cost,” Sloan said. He said competitions like SMUD’s Tiny House Competition give vital hands-on experience.

“Sometimes you learn more with a hammer and a nail than you do reading about hammers and nails,” Sloan said.

The school competing are: California State University, Chico; California State University, Fresno; Cosumnes River College; College of the Sequoias; Laney College of Oakland; California State University, Sacramento; San Jose City College; Santa Clara University; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of California, Santa Cruz partnering with Cabrillo College of Aptos.

Caroline Karmann, a UC Berkeley design student, said the competition “was an opportunity to put into practice what I’m learning in theory.”

Cosumnes River College architecture student Tricia Tecson said she and her fellow designers quickly learned that practicality is important when the goal is to actually build the tiny homes being drawn.

“Our ideas … as great as they are, also have to be tangible,” said Tecson. “We also learned about collaboration.”

Each team took a different approach to solve space and power concerns. For instance, the Sacramento State team used a separate solar thermal device to heat water, while the UC Berkeley team’s home uses recycled water in the shower and captures fog for drinking water. Santa Clara’s team built its tiny home on a rotating porch to maximize the sunlight captured.

All of the homes employ solar panels.

Friday morning, as the clouds rolled in, energy – stored in tucked-away battery banks – became a precious resource. Teams dared not turn lights on for long as the judges continued to do their work. Sloan insisted, with no hint of spin, that the rain was the best test possible.

You can’t design a home that only works when the sun is shining, he said.

“I was driving here smiling … thinking somebody’s battery is going to be dead,” Sloan said. Whereas using propane to heat water might cost a team points toward their green energy score, cold water will also cost a team points.

Once judging is done, Sloan said, teams would be allowed to recharge the battery off the grid so the homes will be ready for guests Saturday. SMUD officials said they’re ready to welcome the public, rain or shine.

The competition also benefits the public with exposure to state-of-the-art tiny homes. Sloan said tiny homes should be used to add affordable infill housing for young couples who sometimes find themselves house poor after buying a traditional home.

“They could have enough money to not be married to their home,” Sloan said.

Ed Fletcher: 916-321-1269, @NewsFletch