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Team Orange County Sprouts Casa del Sol on Its Home Turf

Monday, August 10, 2015

By Ernie Tucker

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015’s Team Orange County—comprising the University of California, Irvine; Chapman University; Irvine Valley College; and Saddleback College—was looking for a way to represent its home territory. After all, the competition is taking place in its backyard.

“We took a step back to learn from nature,” says Alex McDonald, Team Orange County project manager. “We happened upon the California poppy. It’s an orange flower but also the state flower.”

So the more than 100 students who make up the team came together behind the poppy concept.

McDonald says they designed the house, Casa del Sol, to mimic the golden poppy by opening to the sun during the day and closing at night. They also wanted to reflect the conditions of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, where the competition will be held in October. That meant focusing on shading for the summer and ways to open the house in the winter as well.

The group looked at prevailing Southern California winds, and as a result, their project embraces the cool ocean breezes.

Computer-generated illustration of a solar-powered house.

Casa del Sol is designed to mimic the California poppy by opening to the sun in the daytime and conserving water. (Courtesy of Solar Decathlon 2015Team Orange County)

“We stripped away a lot of infrastructure on the western side of the house and added windows to allow breezes in,” he says.

At the same time, the team is prepared for the hot Santa Ana winds that typically scour the area in October. On the eastern side—where the winds will come—the team built up the infrastructure by positioning a carport and the mechanical room to act as buffers for a detached studio and the rest of the living space. An architectural covering known as a Brise Soleil shields the structure from the wind and direct sunlight as well.

And just as a poppy is drought-resistant, Casa del Sol is configured to conserve water. It recycles greywater and benefits from a rainwater catchment.

The steel frame of the house was constructed by a firm near Los Angeles and will be shipped to the team’s construction site at Irvine Valley College, where students have been busy assembling components such as special pivoting doors and the carport.

“Strategically, it made sense, because Irvine Valley is closest to the Great Park. We could get a couple of Radio Flyer wagons and just drag it” to the competition, McDonald jokes.

Photo of a group of people.

Members of Team Orange County gather at the Orange County Great Park on Feb. 1. (Credit: Gee Suan Yeo/Team Orange County)

In McDonald’s opinion, the size and diversity of the team have been both a blessing and a hurdle. Coordinating and engaging all the groups is a challenge.

“But it’s very much Team Orange County. We split up the work into each school’s natural talents and leveraged those skills,” he says.

The engineering and project management comes out of University of California, Irvine. Chapman University heads up marketing and communications and is filming a documentary on the project. Saddleback College helped with initial architectural designs, and Irvine Valley College not only houses construction but has also offered safety training to the team.

As an added benefit, several community college students, inspired by the Solar Decathlon to pursue further education in sustainability and green building, have been accepted into University of California system institutions, including University of California, Irvine.

McDonald, who is pursuing his master’s degree in mechanical engineering at University of California, Irvine, says that the Solar Decathlon has impacted his direction. After graduating from Washington State University, he worked for several years before ultimately moving to the area in 2013 when he thought to check up on the Solar Decathlon.

“I found out that it had moved to the Great Park, so I thought: ‘What luck. I’ll go check it out.'”

He ended up volunteering during Solar Decathlon 2013 and was inspired to seek his graduate degree and get involved in Team Orange County that November.

He’s eager to see Casa del Sol in place.

“I guess this is my baby. It’s been a lot of work, certainly more than just a house,” McDonald says.

He and the others are hoping that, like the native poppy that reseeds in local fields, their concept will reseed throughout the state and spread Team Orange County’s biomimicry to sustainable housing across the United States.

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

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