The metallic gleam of large solar panels atop a house isn’t usually considered attractive. But a team of Austrian students — backed by experts from the Davis Energy Group — found balance between aesthetics and energy efficiency and won first prize in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon last month in Orange County.
The biennial competition challenges up to 20 college teams to build affordable, eco-friendly and elegant houses that are powered solely by the sun.
Team Austria credits its win to assistance from the Davis Energy Group, a renowned consulting firm that also has been involved in the sustainable design of UC Davis’ new West Village neighborhood, the largest planned zero net energy community in the nation.
In 2012, the Davis Energy Group also assisted in the engineering of the California’s first certified zero net energy home. A year prior to garnering attention for that, gears were already turning for 2013 Solar Decathlon.
And so the team from Austria came to Davis in 2011 for some perspective on the state’s energy-efficiency certification requirements from proven experts on the subject.
The students’ main goal was to satisfy Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards, or LEED, a rating system that measures how environmentally friendly a building is.
Patti Heath, project manager for Davis Energy Group, said the U.S. Green Building Council provided the opportunity of provisional LEED certification for any house entered into the Solar Decathlon.
The local firm thus facilitated an on-site inspection of the factory in Austria, where the house was constructed, to secure for the residence its preliminary LEED certification.
“They did an absolutely wonderful project,” Heath said. “And I think we’re going to get the platinum certification for them, which is the highest level you can get in LEED. It has been great working with them.”
Team Austria engineers Marcus Jones and Sabrina Novalin reciprocated the positive feelings about having the locals usher them through through the LEED process in a visit last week to the Davis Energy Group’s headquarters at 123 C St.
“Overall, it ended up making a large contribution to our project and the success that we had,” Novalin said. “There were many things required by LEED that weren’t required by the competition, but taking a holistic approach gave us an advantage.”
Novalin added that the 45 Austrian students who comprised the team also learned about the LEED elements as they were being incorporated into the design process — another positive outcome of the partnership.
There were many lessons that the students learned throughout the competition itself as well, including the difficulty of moving the home from its aforementioned Austria factory to the competition site in America.
The travel meant that Team Austria’s home had to stand the additional test of breaking into pieces, fitting into six containers to be shipped across two continents, and then put back together in Orange County.
“That was one of the overarching challenges,” Jones said. “Firstly, we had to design it for the Austrian and Californian climate, as we had plans to send it back to Austria after the competition.
“It also had to be modular to be shipped in containers over those 10,000 miles. Some teams, like University of Southern California, basically cut their house in two pieces and just brought it down the highway on a truck.”
Once the home was reconstructed on the competition’s grounds, it needed to be used for typical family activities, so the students enjoyed movie nights and dinner parties in their new home.
Jones recalled an anecdote from one of the dinner parties, during which the students prepared a traditional Austrian meal for Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang:
“We started having an issue with the water, and as we were troubleshooting that, we tripped a breaker. As the mayor is sitting in the house, it all goes pitch black. Our electricians went running in with headlamps, and eventually got figured it out.”
But all was not lost after that blunder, as when it came time for the house to be judged and measured in 10 categories — such as architecture, affordability, comfort and energy balance — the home excelled. It scored above 18 other teams for the top prize.
“It was so unique,” said judge Susan Rainier. “There was a large glass door that you could just open up and have the outdoor and indoor combine for what seemed like a larger space. They used wood for a lot of it; it was quite beautiful.”
— Reach Brett Johnson at email@example.com or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett