Las Vegas Sun

September 21, 2017

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UNLV students brave heat, delays in contest to build solar-powered home


Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV mechanical engineering grad student Jinger Zeng points out details while work continues on UNLV’s “Desert Sol” project Friday, Aug. 2, 2013.

Desert Sol Project

Work continues on UNLV's Launch slideshow »

It's 6 a.m. on a Friday, and a grassy field at UNLV is awake with the sound of hammers and drills echoing across it.

In a few hours, the temperature will hit triple digits, forcing the student-builders to retreat into their air-conditioned abodes. But for now, the students toil on a project they hope will become the future of housing in Las Vegas.

Welcome to the construction site of Desert Sol, UNLV's answer to the Energy Department's challenge to build a house powered entirely by the sun.

For the past year and a half, about 80 UNLV students from various disciplines and levels have been designing the details of Desert Sol. Now, students are busy bringing their blueprints to life.

"Drawing it on paper is one thing," said Bryan Oxborrow, a 23-year-old UNLV architecture student and Desert Sol's construction foreman. "Actually building it is another."

Since April, crews of up to 30 students have worked the construction site, near Tropicana Avenue and Swenson Street. The project, half-finished, may look like a small house, but it's packed with big ideas.

Thirty solar panels will power everything, from the house's LED lighting to its all-electric appliances and HVAC system. Plastic tubes filled with water are built into the floor throughout the 750-square-foot house, heating it in the winter and cooling it in the summer.

Outside, the house will feature weathered steel beams and reclaimed wood from the desert, a model of sustainable building. Special, hyper-efficient windows were ordered from Germany. The double-paned windows — filled with the gas argon — let light in but are sealed to let little heat out.

For most of the UNLV undergraduate and graduate students working on this project, Desert Sol is the first house they have built.

The students make up for their lack of experience with hard work, perseverance and determination. They toil for six hours every weekday and Saturday mornings. Some students have worked on their birthdays and even turned down family vacations as their Aug. 30 construction deadline nears.

"We're on a time crunch," said Oxborrow, who worked on his birthday last week. "It's a great experience being part of the Solar Decathlon. I wouldn't miss it."

Despite their hard work, the UNLV team has fallen behind on its aggressive schedule.

A massive thunderstorm a few weeks ago created a flash flood that rushed through the construction site, ruining materials, drywall and flooring. The setback taught the team the basic yet important role that houses play in their lives.

"That's when it hit us that the house really protects us from the environment," said Jinger Zeng, a 24-year-old mechanical engineering graduate student. "Nature is so unpredictable."

During construction, the students learned to apply academic knowledge to a real-world situation, replacing detailed computer-assisted designs with rough "tape measure math," Zeng said.

They also picked up more practical skills, such as how to communicate with vendors and professional contractors working with the students on complex electrical, plumbing and solar panel systems.

Most of all, the students adapted quickly to contend with Las Vegas' notorious summers. To beat the heat, the students work from dawn until noon and have created makeshift shade structures with plastic tarp.

"We try to stay in the shade as much as we can," said Oxborrow, a Reno native not used to Las Vegas summers. "The heat beats you up, that's for sure."

By the end of this month, the students plan to wrap up construction and begin preparing to show off their design and house. On Sept. 20, the students will drive their house on two flatbed trucks to Irvine, Calif., to compete against 19 other solar house designs from colleges worldwide. At the competition's conclusion, Desert Sol will live as an exhibit of sustainable housing at the Springs Preserve.

"I'm pretty nervous and excited at the same time," Zeng said of the competition. "We have so much to do. Although we had two years (of preparation), time flies."

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