Environment & Science

Is a poppy-inspired solar house the future of drought-resilient homes?

Students from the University of California, Irvine, Saddleback College, Irvine Valley College and Chapman University work on the Casa del Sol model home, one of 17 projects in the 2015 U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, which challenges student-led teams to design affordable, energy efficient solar-powered homes for the future.
Students from the University of California, Irvine, Saddleback College, Irvine Valley College and Chapman University work on the Casa del Sol model home, one of 17 projects in the 2015 U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, which challenges student-led teams to design affordable, energy efficient solar-powered homes for the future.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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About a hundred students in Orange County hope their golden poppy-inspired solar and drought-tolerant model house will become what future California homes will look like.

On Thursday, students and construction workers began dismantling the bones of a solar-powered home to truck to the upcoming U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, which starts October 8.

The biennial competition challenges student teams to design and build solar-powered, energy efficient homes that are affordable and aesthetically appealing. The homes must also be capable of charging an electric car.

Project manager Alex McDonald, 31, a mechanical engineering graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, said the team found its answer in the state’s flower.

“It’s drought tolerant,” he said. “We really wanted to design a house that understands and respects the drought that we’re in, and it’s also diurnal, in that it opens up to the sun during the day and it closes up at night.” 

One hundred students from the University of California at Irvine, Chapman University, Saddleback and Irvine Valley colleges designed an approximately 2,000-square-foot house that has an outdoor living room with a retractable screen ceiling, a work shed and two outdoor “surfer” showers.

 

Because the house is regionally situated, pivot panels in the outdoor living room allow ocean breezes from the south to flow through the space. Two tanks on either sides of the house capture gray water for the vertical garden landscaping in the front. Rain barrels are also included.

Tubular solar collectors on the roof allow for the sun to heat the water running through the tube, which can later be used for household purposes.

“I don’t know if it’s something that’s commonly used in homes,” said UC-Irvine mechanical engineering student Teagan Barnes. “But I think it gives everyone an opportunity to see that it is an option.”

Inside the home, about 1,000 square-feet of air-conditioned area, includes a full-sized kitchen, a living room and master bedroom with a bath.

Paige Svehlak, 24, a Saddleback College interior architect student, said the team also added an air-conditioned studio-bedroom with a kitchenette and bath to make the house multi-generational for young adults and elderly family members living together. 

“It can also be used for a renter,” she said. “It’s just trying to bring that Southern California spirit to this home.”

Rooftop solar panels directly charge the house and an electric car using an AC/DC inverter that McDonald said isn’t used in commercially constructed homes today but he believes after this competition, they can be.

He said the model home produces about 17 kilowatts a day; a typical American home uses about 30 kilowatts a day.  

McDonald said the academic research and design costs of the home are around $1 million, but he estimates subsequent homes would cost $350,000 to construct.

That’s the challenge with competitions like this – how to scale the prototype into marketable housing options.  

That’s what JB Wagoner is trying to figure out how to do. He is executive director of Arc Mid-Cities, a group that among other programs, trains at-risk youth how to work in construction.

“People walk through the (decathlon) houses and say, ‘this is a nice house. I could live here. Where can I get this,’” Wagoner said. “And the answer is this is a one-up house. Plans are online.”

Wagoner said by using a slab foundation and removing all the steel used in the model home, the house could be built for about $100,000 less.

The students have nine days to reassemble the model solar-powered home starting on October 8 at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine. Seventeen other teams – many from other California universities and colleges – are competing.