Big Win for a Tiny House

The rEvolve House took first place in a state-wide competition in Sacramento. Now it is being put to work helping veterans with PTSD.

Big Win for a Tiny House
Photo by Joanne Lee

When the rEvolve House project started two years ago, JJ Galvin ’17 was a quiet college sophomore. He wasn’t ready to lead a major construction project, he says, but he knew he wanted to learn.

At the award ceremony for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) 2016 Tiny House Competition, at Cosumnes River College on Oct. 15, Galvin was different: a vocal, confident senior, a leader, a champion. Galvin and his rEvolve House teammates took first place in the inaugural competition. The contest was patterned after the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon and featured nine houses judged on four categories: Architecture, Energy Efficiency, Communications, and Home Life. Their 238-square-foot house, which features a revolving base that allows solar panels to follow the sun, was named the overall winner and took honors for energy efficiency and communications. They bested entries from U.C. Berkeley, three Cal State schools, and four more colleges.

“I’m on cloud nine,” Galvin said at the ceremony. “It’s unreal that I’m blessed enough to be here and have this team around us and have the support that we’ve had.”

During the award ceremony, Galvin, who volunteered as student team leader in fall 2015, was chosen by his teammates to hold the trophy in photos. “Half the reason I came to Santa Clara was to work on projects like this,” he admitted. “So I said, ‘You know what, if no one else [is able] do it, I’m going to step up.’”

Galvin’s transformation wasn’t unique. Working on a house for half their college career forced all the students to become leaders, at various points. With Galvin, the final roster included 14 names—Anna Harris ’17, Gabriel Christ ’17, Jack Dinkelspiel ’17, James LeClercq ’17, Jonathan Borst ’19, Jun Chang ’18, Marcus Grassi ’17, Martin Prado ’16, M.S. ’18, Nico Metais ’16, M.S. ’18, Samantha Morehead ’18, Taylor Mau ’18, Mike Heffernan ’16, Thomas Chung ’18, and George Giannos ’18—but other students cycled in and out of the project during the two-year commitment.

“I think this whole team can conquer the world now,” said Tim Hight, the faculty advisor on the project and an associate professor of engineering. “They set themselves a huge target, and they probably exceeded it.”

The day of the ceremony, Giannos, who served as student construction lead, was amazed at what his team had accomplished, sharing hugs with teammates and friends. They built something significant, something that would last.

Though small in stature, the rEvolve House is a fully functioning home.

It has heat, air-conditioning, running water, a kitchen, a shower, a spiral staircase leading to a rooftop deck, a self-watering vertical garden, and a porch that doubles as the revolving mechanism, helping increase solar energy reserves by about 30 percent.

After the competition, the house was donated to Operation Freedom Paws—a nonprofit dedicated to teaching veterans suffering from PTSD, as well as others with disabilities, how to train their own service dogs.

From Sacramento, the house came to Santa Clara for a short celebration on campus before heading to Gilroy for the town’s holiday parade.

Finally, the house was inspected and prepped for Operation Freedom Paws, which hopes to start using it in early 2017.

The rEvolve House was designed with the veterans who would use it in mind.

With a rotating base that allows solar panels to follow the sun, the rEvolve House increases solar energy reserves by 30 percent. The tiny house took two years and the effort of roughly 20 students to complete. / Photo by Joanne Lee

The doorways, showers, and appliances are all accessible from a wheelchair. When not in use, the bed folds into the wall, providing plenty of additional living space. Surfaces in the house are tough enough to withstand the claws of a dog while remaining easy to clean. There is even a vacuum built into the wall to collect dog hair and a drawer with dog bowls that emerges from the wall.

The cost of a service dog normally runs $10,000 to $60,000, but Operation Freedom Paws offers the dogs to clients at no cost. In the past, clients stayed in hotels paid for by Operation Freedom Paws. With the rEvolve House, the organization can reduce costs and help more people.

“That’s the coolest part,” Giannos said. “Our house has meaning, and it’s going to make someone’s life better.”


Usually emails from foreign countries promising deals too good to be true belong in spam folders. But about two years before the SMUD competition, faculty advisor James Reites, S.J., MST ’71 received an email from Colossun, a company in Spain, that changed the path of the project—eventually.

Colossun claimed it could equip the tiny house with solar panels that would revolve to follow the sun. The email sat in Reites’ inbox for about a year before he and Hight decided to respond. They knew the rEvolve House was too small for the revolving panels to sit on the roof, but there was a way that Colossun could help.

“We asked if we could rotate the house,” Hight said. They could. In Barcelona, Colossun worked on a design to revolve the house. Oddly, the development of a rotating base actually had nothing to do with the naming of the house, which came much earlier. “It was more ‘evolve’ and a revolution in that sense,” Hight said.

While Colossun figured out the logistics of the rotating platform and how to get it halfway around the world, the rEvolve House team was busy working on the rest of the structure. Building a tiny house for competitions like SMUD is a multiyear endeavor. Students, mostly from the engineering program but not exclusively, joined and left the project, with some staying on the team throughout. The students spent half their college careers building the house. And putting their sweat (and a little blood) into it is more than a metaphor.

As the competition drew near and the house started to take shape, the company that produced the revolving platform ran into a roadblock of international proportions. The team had scheduled Hanjin Shipping to transport the crate containing the material for the platform across the ocean, departing Barcelona on Sept. 1, 2016. But the day before the platform was set to sail, Hanjin declared bankruptcy. Globally, around 90 of Hanjin’s vessels were stranded at sea; anyone in queue for shipping with the company was out of luck.

“So we scramble, scramble, scramble,” Hight said. “We have this sponsor, Pasha, a transportation company. They worked with us in the past and the founder, George W. Pasha IV ’84, is an alum. They’ve been extremely good to us and generous and solve our problems. He said, ‘We’ll take care of this. Don’t stress. We’ll figure it out.’”

They did. Strapped for time, the team ditched the plan to ship the crate through the Panama Canal to Oakland, instead sending it to New York and then having it delivered by truck to California in time for the competition.

Gregorio Garcia Portero, an engineer from Colossun, flew to Santa Clara to help put the giant erector set together. A few days after his arrival, the house revolved for the first time. Two weeks later, it was in Sacramento collecting first prize at the SMUD competition.

Crack the Code

To put it in Silicon Valley terms, small units think different. They don’t waste space—appliances are stacked, storage is built in, everything has multiple uses—and they put a premium on design. But will tiny houses hit the mainstream? Hight is uncertain for a variety of reasons, starting with building codes. While tiny houses are popular among engineers and amateur construction enthusiasts, the governing bodies for building codes on local, state, national, and international levels haven’t caught up yet.

“If you build or remodel a house, there are permits, there are inspections, there are fees. There’s a way to do it that’s well established,” Hight said. “What is needed is a way to modify those [processes] so a tiny house can be permitted, can be inspected, and so forth.”

Though small in stature, the rEvolve House is a fully functioning home. It has heat, air-conditioning, running water, a kitchen, a shower, a spiral staircase leading to a rooftop deck, a self-watering vertical garden, and a porch that doubles as the revolving mechanism, helping increase solar energy reserves by about 30 percent.

Since tiny houses are under the minimum square footage for a dwelling in most municipalities, they won’t pass inspection. Further, many tiny houses have wheels, which obscures whether to categorize them as a permanent or temporary residence.

These ordinances were even a bit of a problem for Operation Freedom Paws. To sidestep the issue, the nonprofit was able to get the home inspected as a temporary dwelling, since clients would cycle out.

One good turn: the house and the base that lets SCU’s rEvolve House spin / Photo by Joanne Lee

At a statewide level, some progress is being made. On Sept. 27, just a couple weeks before the Tiny House Competition, Gov. Jerry Brown ’59 signed Assembly Bill 2176, which suspends building, safety, and health codes for unconventional housing structures. Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, authored the law with the intent of fostering the construction of tiny homes for homeless people over the next five years, after which the law will expire.

While Hight agrees tiny houses can provide shelter for homeless people, seasonal workers, and victims of natural disasters, he says the structures are unlikely to go mainstream, as they simply don’t fit the lifestyles of families. But for single people, tiny houses could provide a good bridge before they can afford a full-size house, especially in the Bay Area. Hight envisions tiny house communities with shared resources like laundry and areas to entertain.

“That’s a matter of being more efficient with space and energy and resources,” Hight said. “So people have proposed that would make for more community, more interaction—and it encourages living small in terms of your carbon footprint, your energy use.”

Tiny houses require about the same amount of electricity as small apartments. But with solar panels—which are common—a tiny house uses less energy from the grid. Plus, apartment buildings present problems that tiny houses don’t: They are not typically built by the operator, so energy and space efficiencies often aren’t at the top of the priority list. In tiny homes, both are.

Perhaps, that’s the greatest impact of the tiny house revolution: influencing how traditional units are designed. Not that every new unit will be a tiny house, but tiny house design techniques can make buildings more efficient in both their physical and carbon footprints.

Chief Inspiration Officer

One person missing from the celebration in October was Fr. Reites. Papa Reites, as students knew him, served as faculty advisor and unofficial chief inspiration officer until he passed away in April 2016. The team remembered him by placing his green hard hat on the top shelf of the rEvolve House kitchen and embroidering the message “In Loving Memory of Papa Reites” on every sweatshirt.

Reites was a fixture on solar decathlon teams in recent years, and his fingerprints were all over the rEvolve House. “The smiles are really where you see [him]—and the work ethic, too,” Galvin said. “How hard each of these people worked for this project, that’s where you see him.”

“The commitment, the dedication [is where I see him],” Hight said. “They didn’t let anything slow them down or get in their way. Every obstacle, they just seemed to find a way around it.”

“Papa Reites encouraged us to do better than our best,” Giannos said. “He was not OK with mediocrity, and that was clear in everything we did. He was the first one there and he was the last one to leave every day.”

Giannos said the team knows Reites would be proud of its win. “He’d love to be here right now,” Giannos said the day of the competition. “He’d be the first one on stage and the last one here hugging the house before we left.”

Matt Morgan is assistant editor of Santa Clara Magazine.

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