Education

Sac State, UC Davis compete in U.S. solar home decathlon

CSUS construction management student Nick Hansen, left, and Simpson Strong-Tie representative Mike Couch fasten floors to a steel frame at Sac State on Thursday. CSUS students are building a solar house as part of the U. S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. Sixteen universities are participating in the decathlon, which is held every two years.
CSUS construction management student Nick Hansen, left, and Simpson Strong-Tie representative Mike Couch fasten floors to a steel frame at Sac State on Thursday. CSUS students are building a solar house as part of the U. S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. Sixteen universities are participating in the decathlon, which is held every two years. rbenton@sacbee.com

They’re drilling, sawing, tilting up walls and calculating the sun’s angles. Competing for the first time, Sacramento State and UC Davis are in a race with other universities to build the most energy-efficient, affordable solar home.

The two are among just 16 campuses – selected from a pool of 140 entries – in the two-year Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, which culminates this October in Irvine. The challenge: Design, build and operate a cost-effective, energy-efficient – and attractive – solar-powered house built by teams of students.

Last week, a half-dozen Sacramento State students in fluorescent orange and yellow vests lifted a giant prefabricated wall frame into place. It’s the first standing piece of what the team calls its Reflect Home, a 1,000-square-foot house with a 600-square-foot outdoor patio.

“The point is to show the house can generate enough energy for a normal lifestyle,” said Lindsey Crosby, a recent CSUS graduate who is the project’s architectural manager. Crosby said the home’s long, narrow design allows light to stream into every room and makes ventilation more efficient.

Sacramento State and UC Davis are up against 14 universities, some of which have renowned architecture programs, including Yale and California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Four universities have already dropped out of the grueling, two-year competition.

The UC Davis team – called Aggie-Sol – has designed a nearly 1,000-square-foot house intended for farmworkers. It uses a passive heating and cooling system that relies on water traversing from the roof. It conserves water by collecting rain and minimizing evaporation, said Robert Good, a recent UC Davis graduate and project manager.

Each school’s team won its spot and a $50,000 grant from the Department of Energy more than a year ago. Since then, students and faculty from multiple academic departments have been working to design, complete construction plans and gather donations.

At Sacramento State the work started with a design competition among students in an advanced interior design class. Three students, including Crosby, were selected to design the house. The project also involved about 60 CSUS students in construction management, mechanical engineering, business administration and communication studies.

By comparison, the UCD team has involved about 250 students, from varied majors.

All teams must assemble their solar home in Irvine. The CSUS home will be separated into five modules that will be loaded on five flatbed trucks for the 430-mile trek to Irvine.

The Aggie team plans to build its house directly on top of two trailers that will be driven to Irvine.

Both schools are also competing to raise funds to cover construction and travel costs. UC Davis, which has collected $400,000 in cash and $100,000 in donated materials, is trying to raise $1 million total. Sacramento State’s team is aiming for $400,000 total in donations and has collected about $175,000 so far, said Gareth Figgess, a construction management instructor.

As part of the competition in Irvine, teams will be asked to boil water, do laundry and perform other household tasks within specific time frames, while judges monitor their energy use. The contest also judges the home’s liveability: whether a house “has what it takes to be a home.” That includes hosting a movie night and two dinner parties, as well as whether occupants can simultaneously run a TV and computer.

The homes will be open to the public in October and students will conduct weekend tours explaining the renewable energy systems and energy-efficient technologies.

The overall winner will be selected in October, but there is no monetary award. “The prize is bragging rights,” Crosby said.

Plans for the two solar houses after the competition are tentative. Figgess would like the Hornet house to return to campus as a sustainability learning lab. Good said it’s possible that the UC Davis home could house agriculture students staying on campus.

U.S. Solar Decathlon

What: A two-year contest hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy where student teams design, build and operate a solar-powered residence. Homes are judged in 10 areas, ranging from architecture and engineering to marketing and home life.

When: Orange County Great Park, Irvine, Oct. 8-18. The public can view the student-built homes Thursdays through Sundays.

More details: Solardecathlon.gov

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