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August 24, 2019

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Sinatra Living is sustainably sexy: UNLV impresses in Solar Decathlon


Dennis Schroeder/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

The Sinatra Living house was designed by UNLV students for the Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon. Shown here in Denver, the site of the competition, it placed eighth in the competition.

Sinatra Living

The Sinatra Living house was designed by UNLV students for the Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon. Shown here in Denver, the site of the competition, it placed eighth in the competition. Launch slideshow »


• 990 square feet, outfitted to address the demand for sustainable housing and the particular needs of a rapidly aging population. According to Builder magazine, the students worked with an AARP focus group to tailor components to the senior population.

• For the aging population, the home was designed with slip-resistant floors and sensors that detect falls, alert caregivers and unlock doors.

• Desert-smart features include graywater reuse and a collection system for condensation and rainwater.

• The home’s automation is integrated with Amazon’s Alexa, such that aspects such as security, temperature and lighting can be controlled remotely.

The UNLV Solar Decathlon team shined bright in another international competition.

Following its 2013 debut in the U.S. Department of Energy challenge — coming in second to Vienna University of Technology by only five points — UNLV’s 2017 team placed eighth overall and saw success in single events during the experience Oct. 5-15 in Denver.

About 60 students specializing in architecture, engineering, health sciences or hospitality took part in the project, spending two years dreaming up and constructing a full-size, solar-powered house. Dubbed Sinatra Living, UNLV’s entry was judged against 10 others (there were 16 teams to start, but five dropped out for various reasons) for its blend of “design excellence and smart energy production with innovation, market potential and energy and water efficiency.”

Despite doing most of the building on campus prior to heading to Denver, the team didn’t see the finished product until the home was assembled in Denver.

“It was one of the best feelings I have ever had,” said Adam Betemedhin, a student who acted as project engineer for Sinatra Living. “Seeing it complete was really one of those very inspiring, wonderful moments.”

UNLV’s home achieved its best result in the innovation category, nabbing a first-place honor.

The judges were impressed by the use of technology to reduce and manage energy consumption, and they looked for design features that could potentially have an impact on the housing market.

Betemedhin said three key features stood out to earn that win:

n Phase Change Material (PCM): Neal Energy Systems provided PCM so Sinatra Living’s cooling system could distribute the load throughout the day, working at off-peak times and using stored energy to save the homeowner money — as much as 40-50 percent on power bills — and reduce demand on the public grid during temperature spikes. It also introduced fresh air into the building to temper the environment for occupants living in tight quarters.

n Modular mechanical room: This plug-and-play system uses tube solar collectors to heat water and the radiant floor, as well as power heating and cooling.

n Tesla Powerwall 2.0 backup battery system: This shifts usage away from peak times and stores backup power. Betemedhin said the surplus energy could be sold back to a utility company such as NV Energy for about 6 cents per kilowatt hour, but instead it’s stockpiled for high-cost time windows, like the late afternoon, when it could cost 20 cents per kilowatt hour.

Sinatra Living earned second place in the engineering category for the research backing up design decisions, ranging from the use of energy-efficient appliances to the types of mechanical and electrical solutions.

“All the decisions that we made to make our home special, the judges enjoyed,” Betemedhin said. “So that was cool to get recognized for that.”

The home’s art deco, modern look wowed the judges as well, tying for second in the architecture category. They remarked on the aesthetic’s integration with functional systems, from electrical and plumbing to lighting.

“(They liked) how it inspired people to live sustainably,” Betemedhin said. It also echoed Las Vegas’ mid-century home style.

UNLV President Len Jessup gushed about the students’ success and appreciated their effort.

“The entire UNLV community is so proud of the dedication, persistence and successes of Team Las Vegas — they embody everything our university and our city stand for,” Jessup said. “This was truly a collaborative effort and a lifetime experience that no one involved will ever forget.”

Some students were at the competition site completing construction for a month, while others flew back and forth as their schedules permitted. Faculty were on hand in Denver, which allowed students who were there long-term to get their school work and testing done from afar.

Betemedhin said the two-year challenge of creating and presenting Sinatra Living was an incomparable academic experience worth the maneuvering.

“Easily one of the hardest things I had to do in my life,” he said. “You don’t often get to be involved in something this big while still being in school. It’s definitely a rough time, but I wouldn’t change anything for the world. Easily one of the best experiences I’ll ever have in my life, for sure.”

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