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University of California, Davis, Readies Aggie Sol for Farmworkers

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

The University of California, Davis, has strong pedigrees in both sustainable projects and agricultural research.  So even though Solar Decathlon 2015 is the first U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon for the school, its Aggie Sol house already has a legacy to draw upon. Its sports teams are dubbed the Aggies for the school’s agricultural and sustainable bent, and its Solar Decathlon 2015 project reflects that mission.

“Sol means the motivation, innovation, and pride that come with being a UC Davis student,” says Robert Good, a civil engineering graduate who is now the team’s project manager.

That pride stems, in part, from the early 1970s, when the school built a series of residential structures called the Domes, which focused on alternative lifestyles and sustainability. In the past six years, there have been several additional initiatives to create sustainable housing, including the West Village on campus, said to be the largest planned net-zero energy community in the United States. In a symbolic gesture, Aggie Sol is being assembled across from the Domes on campus.

“We’re dedicating the design to the needs of farmworkers or agricultural workers,” Good says. “The engineering, the architecture, and the entire focus of our team are dedicated to achieving this goal while achieving an affordable price point.”

Computer-generated illustration of a modern house.

The University of California, Davis, Aggie Sol house includes a mud room for farmworkers to clean up in when they come home from outdoor field work. (Courtesy of the Solar Decathlon 2015 University of California, Davis, team)

The team is aiming for below-market-rate costs for its design, a concept that could make it more easily affordable to people who might have a critical need for such housing.

“We are making it affordable for the masses and workers,” Good says. “We saw the 2015 competition as an opportunity to approach that problem.”

Just under 1,000 ft 2, the wooden structure uses thick straw-bale walls that have a high R-value. To reduce both cost and energy consumption, the plumbing system will rely on gravity instead of pumps for water distribution to the fixtures.

The house is split into a double-wide modular layout, which the team believes will make it easy to fabricate, ship, and erect onsite. After the Solar Decathlon, it can be set up on a farm site.  Half of the space is in the style of a common “great family room,” combining a kitchen, dining room, and family room in one space for large group gatherings.

The other side is unique, Good believes. Along with private space that includes two bedrooms will be a mud room for workers to quickly clean up when they come home from outdoor field work. This includes a deck space, locker to store work clothes and muddy boots, laundry, and shower. Another locker holding clean clothes will enable the Aggie Sol resident to change and enter the house refreshed and dirt-free—a boon for those in farming occupations.

Aggie Sol is a university-wide project. So far, more than 300 students—from virtually all majors across the university, from engineering to English—have participated.

To overcome early organizational issues, they transformed the team setup to make it less formal.

“It was more fun to open up the discussions to anyone to participate. People could be less sensitive to the design critiques, which allowed us to sand the corners of our design down to something that really does work and effectively meets the project needs,” Good says.

The final location of the Aggie Sol house is still undecided. Local farm owners in the area have expressed interest, as have agricultural researchers, Good says.

Reaction has been strongly positive.  From the administration through the student body, “This has really made an impact on the university,” Good says.

He thinks Aggie Sol work will take root in the school curriculum, across the state, and beyond.

Ernie Tucker is a member of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon communications team.


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