UNLV's sun-powered house lands in a bright spot

Win or lose, UNLV’s entry in a prestigious solar energy competition will have a nice, sunny place to come home to.

The cutting-edge, sun-powered house designed by a team of university students and faculty is set for permanent display at the Springs Preserve late this year. First, though, it must be built and transported to Southern California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon.

Every two years, the DOE chooses 20 collegiate teams from around the world to design and build a house that produces at least as much energy as it uses. The home must be reasonably priced, appealing to potential buyers and appropriate for the market where the team is based.

UNLV calls its entry DesertSol. The 750-square-foot house will be powered by 30 solar panels on the roof that should easily cover its modest energy needs, thanks to an array of efficiency improvements.

The walls and roof will contain about 40 percent more insulation than a typical home, and the structure will be shielded from direct sun exposure by a weather-worn wood facade.

The lighting, heat and air-conditioning will be run through smart controls to maximize energy efficiency. The home’s hot water will come from a solar-thermal system and will be piped through the floors on cold days to provide radiant warmth.

To reduce air-conditioner use, the windows will be shaded and the building oriented to keep out direct sunlight between March and September, a technique known as “passive design.”

“That’s stuff that doesn’t really cost you anything,” said Eric Weber, assistant professor for UNLV’s School of Architecture. “That’s just the designer paying attention to the surroundings.”

Alexia Chen is an architecture graduate student at UNLV and project manager for DesertSol.

She said the house is designed to appeal to affluent retirees and others looking for a second home or vacation property in Southern Nevada.

The finished product will wind up costing about $320,000, but about 10 percent of that is because of the additional structural work needed to make sure the house survives its road trip to and from California.

University of Nevada, Las Vegas was picked for the competition in January 2012. The past year was spent assembling the team of about 60 students and 10 faculty members and coming up with a design.

With that in hand, the team hopes to start construction by the end of the month at UNLV’s Paradise Campus, across Tropicana Avenue from the rest of the university.

The house needs to be done by September to give the team enough time to test it out. Then it will be separated into two sections and hauled to Orange County, Calif., for the 10-day competition in early October.

As its name suggests, the decathlon features 10 different contests, a people’s choice award and a grand prize for the best entry overall.

UNLV will square off against teams from Austria, Canada and the Czech Republic and such prestigious American schools as Stanford, Caltech and USC.

Then it’s back home for DesertSol for a relaxing retirement at the Springs Preserve, the Las Vegas Valley Water District’s 180-acre, $250 million monument to desert living at U.S. Highway 95 and Valley View Boulevard.

The Clark County Commission, which oversees the water district, signed off this week on plans to display the house at the preserve.

Water officials and UNLV team members hope the house will serve to demonstrate and inspire energy-efficient living in the Mojave Desert.

Chen said it’s exciting that the house will end up at a place that sees several hundred thousand visitors a year and that team members can take people there to tour the results of their hard work.

It will also provide an opportunity to see how the house holds up, a chance they might not get if the place was sold to a private owner, Weber said.

“That’s one of the great things about it being at the Springs Preserve. We’ll be able to monitor its performance over time,” he said.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.