There I was – standing in the desert and staring at this 995-square-foot, solar-and-Tesla-powered, Alexa-controlled home of the future that the UNLV team designed for the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2017. I opened the sliding gate, took a stroll around the house, and I tested out the flexible ductwork in the height-adjustable kitchen counter (all seemed to be in working order). For a minute, I sat on the couch, admiring the casework design. I also made sure to check out the copper piping inside the mechanical room. And I watched the sky turn those magical colors as the sun set over the horizon.

Well, actually I changed the time of day by pressing a button…in virtual reality.

In actual reality, the construction of this home is set to begin in March with the competition coming up in the fall. This competition will be hosted by the City of Denver and will be the 8th installment in its 15-year history – to put it in perspective, Solar Decathlon began before Facebook or iPhones became part of our lives. The Decathlon has been challenging students to design and build fully operational solar-powered homes to showcase innovation and market potential. And since 2002, the competitions have changed with time. (See table below.) In the beginning it was more of a technical competition, in which teams attempted to solve the top issues of energy efficiency – refrigeration, hot water, lighting, and getting around. As the technology evolved, while these basic contests remained in the competition, more complexity was added to the challenge. Students have since had to tackle the question of market viability, affordability, and the requirement to cook and entertain in the homes they built. Water, a topic equally as crucial as energy in the leading movement in sustainable design, has now been added to the latest competition. As the contests became more complex, the weight for scoring has been shifting towards the juried contests, in which industry experts review the design thinking behind a completed home.

* Gray boxes indicate juried contests (as opposed to measured contests).

* All contests are worth 100 points unless otherwise noted.

However, the one element in the competition that hasn’t changed is the student ingenuity and the incredibly hands-on (sometimes hands-full) experience that develops out of the process. Teams begin by asking what-if questions, and they make plans to test these ideas. The 2017 UNLV team did just that. They envisioned a home in which people can comfortably, safely, and happily age in their residence without needing to move to an assisted-living facility when old age and diseases knock on their door. They wanted to be able to keep the seniors connected but overcome the challenges of using various new technologies. At one point, the talk about a voice-control user interface was just an idea; now they are working with Amazon’s Alexa Team to control and automate every part of the home in an easy to use way. They also wanted to test a new way of presenting architectural design. In fact, one of the first things the team purchased was a VR headset in order to explore the new possibilities of virtual reality. Using the real-time rendering technology in VR, they were able to produce crisp renders and beautiful animations in a fraction of the time as traditional renders. Their workflow takes the raw Revit model and places it in a custom-built version of Unreal Engine, a video game platform. (See images)


Back in the UNLV Foundation room, where the donors and community supporters gathered to experience the house in VR, I could hear excited comments as people made their way around the home, or as they sat down on a well-positioned chair for that fully immersive 4D experience.It is an incredible tool to show a client what it is like to be inside a space – not just simulated 3D, but actually having the ability to open doors, flip switches, or experience any interaction you can dream of – and all it takes is the necessary programming behind the scenes. Although the VR experience is but a small component of Team Vegas’s overall challenge, it is highly applicable in the design industry, and the team already plans to commercialize their product and services to both local and regional design firms.

This is why I believe (and you should too) in Solar Decathlon: it is a great venue for students to put words into action,to test the theories and models in the real world, and learn to navigate the intricacies of human and resource management required to accomplish real world projects. To put it briefly, the student decathletes are tasked to imagine, plan and execute. From my personal experience working on the 2013 competition, I know we started out not knowing much, but we certainly did make the best plans we possibly could. When situations changed, we reacted and adapted the strategies. We reaped the rewards of our decisions, and we learned that tenacity and passion will lead you to success.

If this article sparks even a little interest in you, I strongly encourage you to plan a trip to Denver this fall. Experience first-hand the results of the 16 homes that the collegiate teams proposed for this year’s competition. Go see the faces of the students who believe that they will make a difference in this world. In fact, it is your support that will help them make that difference. In each Solar Decathlon house, there are plenty of ideas and innovations to be discovered and inspired. The students are taking a big leap – the industry and community must pitch in and be part of this journey of discovery.
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Alexia Chen was the project manager for UNLV’s entry in Solar Decathlon 2013. She is currently an advisor to Team Vegas competing in Solar Decathlon 2017.