Throughout my continuing preview coverage of the upcoming 2013 U.S. Solar Decathlon, I’ve taking glimpses at remarkable solar-powered abodes designed to thrive in and respond to an eclectic assortment of climates and locales: The remote boreal forests of Alberta, the Czech countrysideVermont, and, of course, Southern California, which, for the first time, will serve as host to the Solar Decathlon when the collegiate solar home-building showdown kicks off at Great Orange County Park in Irvine on Oct. 3.
 
Responsible for some of the more jaw-dropping design renderings submitted by the 20 competing teams hailing from universities across North America — and a couple of Euro-contenders, too — is a first-time contender composed of 60 students and a handful of faculty members from the University of Las Vegas. Naturally, the team’s Solar Decathlon entry, DesertSol, is specifically designed to exist as a seasonal vacation retreat in the very place in which it originated (no, moving walkways and penny slots are not involved): The majestic yet brutal Mojave Desert.
 
That being said, there wasn't much concern about the 6.75kW PV array installed atop the 754-square-foot prototype home not receiving enough juice. Sunshine, and whether or not there would be enough it to power the home, was a non-issue for the UNLV Solar Decathlon Team in the design stages. However, keeping the interior of this unique desert dwelling — a sustainable “base camp for desert explorers in search of escape” – cool and comfortable as possible while harnessing a scant Mojave resource, water, were both formidable challenges. 
In designing a LEED Platinum-aiming home for one of the most parched landscapes on earth (the Mojave gets less than 13 inches of rain annually), Team Las Vegas was forced to think beyond landscaping and low-flow everything:
 
Proper water management is critical for any desert home. DesertSol makes use of this precious natural resource by collecting rainwater and moisture, then reusing it for evaporative cooling as well as irrigation for landscaping. However, we're not just concerned with collecting water. We are also using clean water and it's extremely useful thermal properties (water transfers heat approximately 20 times more efficiently than air!) in a unique way. Hydronic radiant floor heating system is among the most cost-effective and efficient type of heating systems available.
 
An interesting touch is the home’s fire protection sprinkler system that’s combined with the home’s potable plumbing system. Essentially, each time a cold-water fixture is used, fresh water is pumped into the non-stagnant sprinkler system.
 
Features that help to keep the interior of DesertSol non-scorching in the summer and toasty during the winter months include a shading rain screen facade made from reclaimed Wyoming snow fence, retractable solar shade screens, a tight building envelope, and various passive design features. A Panasonic energy recovery ventilator, LED lighting, high-efficiency Bosch appliances, an innovative home automation system including lots of goodies from Insteon, and a ductless minisplit heat pump system from Mitsubishi help to keep energy bills, no matter what the season, nice and low.
 
Building materials such as pre-weathered wood and rusted metal also play an important role in the design of the home beyond aesthetics. "Creating a unique aesthetic reminiscent of the old mining towns of the Mojave Desert,” these “timeless” materials are meant to endure the harsh desert environment without deteriorating. To achieve LEED Platinum status, the team selected materials and finishes that are predominately of the reclaimed, recycled, and nontoxic variety; furnishings include a few interesting (mostly) green choices from West Elm.
 
In addition to serving as a sustainable model of Mojave Desert living, the UNLV Solar Decathlon Team views DesertSol as the antithesis of the “unnecessarily inefficient and cookie-cutter” McMansions that have come to define the foreclosure-ridden sprawl beast that is the Las Vegas Valley.
 

In the informative architecture/engineering section of Team Las Vegas' website, all the key distinctions between a conventional Vegas home and DesertSol are spelled out including framing (DesertSol was built using advance framing techniques), foundation (a mobile steel chassis in lieu of concrete slab), electricity (grid-tied microinverters vs. analog meters), and on and on. The key difference, of course, is the motivation. Whereas most Las Vegas homes are built quickly and cheaply (hello stucco!) with little concern for performance, DesertSol is “designed and built from the ground up to be an ultra-efficient home” that reduces “its overall consumption by using resources more efficiently than a conventional home.”

 
As mentioned, Team Las Vegas envisioned DesertSol as a vacation retreat for physically active upper middle-income folks with a love of the great outdoors and a tolerance for some pretty extreme heat. Post-competition, the home will return to Sin City where it will be installed and opened to the public as a sustainable demo home at the 180-acre Las Vegas Springs Preserve.
 
The home, which is due to complete the trip across the desert and arrive in Irvine on Sept. 20, cost in the ballpark of $320,000 to construct.

Head on over to the UNLV Solar Decathlon Team website to learn more about DesertSol. You can also track Team Las Vegas' progress via Twitter,  Facebook, and on the team's blog as they ready their not-so-delicate desert flower for the big competition.

Plenty more information on all 20 teams duking it out to build the most attractive, livable and efficient solar-powered home in all the land can be found at the Solar Decathlon home page

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