Of the 10 juried and measured contests that competing teams in the biennial U.S. Solar Decathlon must submit to, the Market Appeal Contest is often the most fascinating as it gives each team the opportunity think outside of the housing market box.

Who is the real-world target client and how does the home in question — in all of its cutting-edge, solar-powered glory — meet the unique needs and desires of that particular client?

Usually, the collegiate teams opt for a more or less generalist approach by designing homes — solar-powered houses that are “cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive” — for target markets such as baby-boomers and growing middle-class families. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach as these homes tend to generative plenty of positive buzz from Solar Decathlon visitors during the competition. After all, these visitors tend to represent the robust markets that the teams are designing for. (New for 2015, all competing homes must be designed for full-time/year-round occupancy).

But when teams opt build and design their homes for more niche markets — families displaced by natural disasters, military veterans struggling with PTSD, remote industries workers living in Western Canada, etc. — they’re given a greater opportunity to flex their altruistic muscle and address real-world housing issues.

At the 2015 U.S. Solar Decathlon, due to kick off on Oct. 8 at Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, first-time contender the University of California, Davis already stands out by focusing on a target market that’s never been tackled at a Solar Decathlon: migrant farm workers.

It’s a criminally neglected market and one that deserves immediate attention. As Gail Wadsworth, executive director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, wrote for Civil Eats in 2011: "As long as the people who work in the fields where our food is produced live in unhealthy and unsafe conditions, our food system will never be sustainable."

It’s also a fitting choice for UC Davis, an institution founded in 1905 as the University of California’s rural farm school that now ranks as the top university in the world for agriculture, forestry and veterinary sciences. In honor of its agriculture heritage, UC Davis students — and the school's athletic teams — are referred to as Aggies. (The actual school mascot isn’t a cattle prod-brandishing farmhand but a mustang).

A rendering of Aggie Sol, UC Davis' entry in the 2015 US Solar Decathlon.Rendering: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon/flickr

A rendering of Aggie Sol, UC Davis' entry in the 2015 US Solar Decathlon.Rendering: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon/flickr

Of course a team from super-cool UC Davis, located just west of Sacramento in tomato-producing heavyweight Yolo County, would base its net-zero energy Solar Decathlon Entry, Aggie Sol, around agriculture. It's a given for a school that offers courses like Edible Mushroom Cultivation and Field Equipment Operation; a school where a 107-year-old dairy barn now houses a Taco Bell Express.

However, the emphasis on housing for “underserved farm workers” is a pleasant surprise that, if anything, it shows that the UC Davis team designed their Solar Decathlon entry with plenty of heart to accompany that “sol.”

“Sol means the motivation, innovation, and pride that come with being a UC Davis student,” explains Robert Good, a civil engineering graduate who serves as the team’s project manager, to the Solar Decathlon blog. “We’re dedicating the design to the needs of farmworkers or agricultural workers. The engineering, the architecture, and the entire focus of our team are dedicated to achieving this goal while achieving an affordable price point.”

Expounds the team’s website:

In the United States, over one million people are working as farm laborers, and with 12% of all U.S. agricultural exports coming out of California, it is clear that many of these farm workers are here in our own backyard. These workers are often living in deplorable conditions, with no plumbing, no temperature control, and extreme overcrowding due to their inability to afford anything better. Concerned and aware of this problem, our team at the University of California, Davis has found a way to bring together sustainable living and the goal of a zero net energy home as a deliberate solution to this local and national problem. Our team sees the necessity to advance the quality of homes in this segment of the market to promote the quality of life for low-income groups.

It’s a commendable mission and the UC Davis team, with an eye toward affording dignity to a marginalized population, has incorporated a bounty of farm worker-friendly elements into the design of Aggie Sol, a quick-to-fabricate-and-deliver modular home that makes “it possible for low-income communities to live in a high scale, beautiful home that they can afford, as well as bridging a gap between high initial costs and sustainable living that has long existed.”

A rendering of Aggie Sol, UC Davis' entry in the 2015 US Solar Decathlon.Rendering: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon/flickr
A rendering of Aggie Sol, UC Davis' entry in the 2015 US Solar Decathlon.Rendering: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon/flickr

With its wood frame and straw bale walls, Aggie Sol is certainly the first entry in Solar Decathlon history to include an al fresco decontamination area — a heavy-duty outdoor mudroom or “cleansing room” of sorts in which residents can wash/scrub/remove themselves before heading indoors after a long day in the fields. This area, which also serves as a secondary entry point, features an outdoor shower for rinsing off, boot storage and double-sided lockers to “receive fresh clothing to be completely cleansed of the day before entering the rest of their home.” The cleansing room doesn’t just prevent mud and manure and guck of all sorts from soiling the interior of the home but stops pesticides and other nefarious elements of the Monsanto variety from compromising indoor air quality.

A multipurpose great room with a combined living area, kitchen and dining room takes up a bulk of the interior. In addition to health and comfort, the emphasis here is on entertaining as dedicated space for social congregation is largely lacking in many migrant worker communities. A private master bedroom along with a secondary bedroom/flex space offer something else absent farm laborer housing: privacy and refuge.

In addition to its unfussy, farm worker-friendly design, Aggie Sol boasts numerous features that help to keep energy and water usage to a minimum. Although there’s very few windows to help reduce solar heat gain, solar tubes help bring sunlight into the center of the home and reduce the need for artificial daytime lighting; a butterfly-shaped roof lends itself to streamlined rainwater collection; and an innovative radiant cooling and heating system helps further drive down utility bills:

The solution utilizes a large rainwater reservoir which is cooled by exposing the water to the air during the during the chill night hours through a sprinkler system on the roof. This chilled water is then filtered and pumped through the radiant floor slab during the day to cool the house. Additionally, small quantities of the water can heated to provide radiant heating in cooler months or nights, sustaining a consistent temperature in the home throughout all hours or seasons.

While Aggie Sol relies on numerous passive design considerations to keep energy usage ultra-low, as a net-zero energy residence it's also active in nature: the requisite rooftop solar array will enable the home to generate just as much — or more — electricity than it consumes.

A group portrait of UC Davis' 2015 US Solar Decathlon team. In addition to the core team, over 300 UC Davis students from a range of departments contributed to the design of Aggie Sol. (Photo: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon/flickr)

UC Davis, a school renowned for embracing its deep agrarian roots, is also certainly no stranger to planet-improving technological innovation, particularly when it comes to net-zero energy building. The university’s $280 million “energy-positive” West Village development, home to the Honda Smart Home, is touted as the largest planned net-zero energy community in the United States. The highly bikeable 5,300-acre campus is also home to the world's first LEED Platinum winery and brewery.

Yet Aggie Sol, which triumphs wellbeing and affordability, is different.

“I heard about what we were going to do about ZNE housing for low-income families, and that really struck a chord with me, being from a low-income neighborhood,” team member Alejandro Perez told UC Davis Today in Oct. 2014. “I really want to make my own house energy efficient, but it’s really costly, and it’s not really practical where I’m from. Just being part of that effort to make it more affordable really inspired me to be part of the team.”

For now, it’s unclear if Aggie Sol, post-competition, will be indeed used by its intended target market. The team has hinted that it may return to the UC Davis and remain a permanent fixture on campus as student housing for the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. There’s also the chance it could be acquired by a local landowner and potentially be used to as housing for workers.

And UC Davis isn’t the only homegrown team duking it out in Orange County come October.

Other California-based schools in the running include return Solar Decathlon contender Cal Poly, Team Orange County (the University of California, Irvine; Chapman University; Irvine Valley College; and Saddleback College) and first-timer Sacramento State, a school located just 20 minutes down the Yolo Causeway from its longtime sporting rival, UC Davis.

The Aggies versus the Hornets in a solar home building competition? Now that should get interesting.

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Net-zero home provides California farm laborers with heart and 'sol'
UC Davis students conceive a 'deliberate solution' to substandard farm worker housing.