Radiant house

Building a house for the 2013 Solar Decathlon. That, and changing the world.

Radiant house
Photo by Charles Barry

The bones and sinews of the house are steel and bamboo, and coursing through it is electricity powered by the sun and also water warmed by the sun. Energy-efficient, water-efficient, and Tahoe blue in color, it’s an abode that delights the thousands of visitors who cross its threshold and who imagine themselves living here.

What’s cool about Radiant House: Explore the systems and features by clicking the graphic above.
It is golden October, and this place—Radiant House, the team from Santa Clara christened it—is part of the Solar Village in Orange County, California, with competing teams from across these United States and the European Union, from Caltech to the Czech Technical University. The U.S. Department of Energy has hosted the biennial Solar Decathlon since 2002, and in years prior the village was erected on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This was the first time that the competition, which ran Oct. 3–13, was held in California, with 20 teams from around the world bringing their dreams and plans, beams and panels to Great Park, formerly the El Toro Marine Air Station. It’s a locale with tremendous space and ample sunshine.

But 2013 is not the first time that a team of intrepid students from California’s first university (that would be Santa Clara) has competed in the storied contest. It’s the third time that students from the Mission Campus have envisioned and designed and constructed a solar-powered home. They build on the shoulders of those who have gone before (in 2007 and 2009), and they follow through on dreams that those students had (more bamboo, design your own control system), and they achieve things that are wonderful and new and, in the spirit of the competition, things we could be doing right now, in the house that you start building tomorrow.

Shall we talk about energy independence? Let’s. And also of the trinity of efficiency, economy, and elegance. Ethics is a good word, too. A pair of student ethicists are part of this team. Sustainability is another good word, which reminds us that we mentioned, at the outset, bamboo: in the I-joists and in the decking, in the walls and the floors and the ceiling, a flexible material that’s fast-growing and renewable, and you know you will see much more of it in the years to come in the houses that are built. Push the envelope is one aspiration. Create a blessed economy of scale is another.


Photo by Charles Barry
Team leader Jake Gallau ’13 was proud of the fact that this time around Santa Clara students were able to do more with bamboo than any SCU house in the past has. And that they actually pulled off designing and implementing a custom (but simple and intuitive) control system—thanks in no small part to the doggedness of controls lead Richard Dobbins ’14. The system ran off an inexpensive credit card–sized computer that goes by the name Raspberry Pi.

Tucked into the mech room (aka “the brain”) at the back of the house is a French oak wine barrel, part of a looped solar thermal system, which contains hex piping filled with a phase-change material: a vegetable wax that drinks up the heat of the sun by day and, by night, as it cools and solidifies, releases heat and ensures that you can take a hot shower after the sun sets. The barrel once held pinot noir and bears the logo Testarossa, a winery that is located, not coincidentally, on the grounds of the former Jesuit novitiate in Los Gatos, Calif.

Many a novice training for the Jesuits once gathered the fruit of the vine in those fields. Now the winery is run by Rob Jensen ’86 and Diana Jensen ’88, engineering grads and Silicon Valley veterans and parents of son Nick Jensen ’15, part of the Radiant House construction team. Like many parents, they chip in with a far sight more than moral support and encouragement; in their case, that includes bottling Radiant House Chardonnay and a Radiant Red to raise money for the team.

Offering counsel and expertise to this team and the two before is faculty advisor Tim Hight, who’s taught mechanical engineering at SCU for three decades. He doesn’t hesitate to pronounce his work with the teams “one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.”

This is also the third time working with a team for James Reites, S.J., MST ’71. The 76-year-old priest, affectionately known as Papa Reites (the ’07 team gave him the sobriquet) calls the project the essence of engineering with a mission. He’s an associate professor of religious studies, but he has extensive construction experience both before and during his tenure at Santa Clara.

In 2013, the organizers of the Solar Decathlon turned to him as the shining example of what the teachers and scholars bring to the project: For the opening ceremony in Great Park, Fr. Reites was the only rep from any of the teams asked to join dignitaries and corporate leaders on the stage to address what the Solar Decathlon is about in its largest sense: working with students on a mission to make the world a better place.


Photo by Charles Barry
There are lots of ways to do that, aren’t there? “I got involved because this is the future of technology,” Brian Grau ’15 told NBC Bay Area. The mechanical engineering major and public relations lead for the team, Grau also said that the team wanted to show that “you can live a traditional lifestyle and still be very sustainable.”

Seeing a project like this through takes persistence, even in the face of a government shutdown in October (which didn’t shut down the contest) or fierce Santa Ana winds (which did close the Solar Village to the public one afternoon). For the Solar Decathlon, there are five measured contests and five juried contests. Scoring for the measured contests—including energy balance, hot water, and comfort zone—kept Radiant House at the top of the leader board or right up there until the home stretch of the decathlon. In engineering they took fifth, though juried contests that include market appeal, affordability, and architecture meant the team finished at No. 11 overall. Top honors went to Team Austria, from the Vienna University of Technology. University of Nevada, Las Vegas, took second; the Czechs, who won first in architecture, finished third overall.

Sure, there was disappointment among the Santa Clara students on how a few of the contests wound up; some comments from judges criticized the pioneering use of bamboo, since it wasn’t (easily) available on the market just yet. Expect that to change—in part because a house like this shows that it can be, and should be. Nicole Pal ’14, assistant project leader, reflects the attitude of many students in putting the contest results in the context of the bigger purpose: “It’s about changing the world—we got this!”

The builders of Radiant House might also point out that you could have this, too: The house itself is available for sale.

Read more about Radiant House on the team’s website

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