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A Net-Zero Home for Farm Workers

In the upcoming Solar Decathlon, a university team will unveil its design for low-cost housing for an underserved market

Posted on Sep 18 2015 by Scott Gibson

A design team at the University of California, Davis, has focused its attention on the often unmet needs of farm laborers for its entry in this year's Solar Decathlon.

It's the first time the school has participated in the competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The U.C. Davis entry, what its designers are calling the Aggie Sol home, is one of 16 university solar-powered houses that will be on display in Irvine, California, beginning on October 8.

The house is specifically designed for farm workers on the West Coast, the team's website says, and is intended as a model for affordable housing that can "replace the inefficient grid-dependent houses that currently dominate the market."

The U.C. Davis team hoped to develop a template for housing that would benefit a group of people who often make do with substandard housing.

"In the United States, over one million people are working as farm laborers, and with 12% of all U.S. agricultural exports coming out of California, it is clear that many of these farm workers are here in our own backyard," the team's website says. "These workers are often living in deplorable conditions, with no plumbing, no temperature control, and extreme overcrowding due to their inability to afford anything better."

Features fit for the farm

Farm workers get dirty, and they're likely to run into pesticides or herbicides in the course of a day — factors the student designers took into account. A second entryway to the home was designed as a cleansing zone where workers can shed shoes and clothing, use a shower and pull clean clothing from double-sided lockers before going inside.

The design team originally planned to use straw-bale construction (some online articles still include this description), but later the plans were changed in favor of more conventional 2x6 construction and fiberglass batt insulationInsulation, usually of fiberglass or mineral wool and often faced with paper, typically installed between studs in walls and between joists in ceiling cavities. Correct installation is crucial to performance. , said Claire DeCamp, a university representative on the project.

Students are building the house on two refurbished house trailers on campus, and the intent of the design, DeCamp said, is that the components could be made as modular units in a factory and trucked to their destination for assembly.

Other features of the house, taken from the UCDavis team website:

  • Materials that contribute to high indoor air quality, such as air-purifying plants and linoleum flooring that doesn't off-gas volatile organic compounds.
  • Flexible indoor spaces that encourage groups to gather but also a master bedroom that provides some privacy.
  • Radiant heating and cooling system using a rainwater reservoir. At night, water from the reservoir is sprayed into the air through a rooftop sprinkler. The chilled water is then filtered and pumped through the radiant slab during the day to cool the house. When needed, the same tubing can distribute heated water.
  • A heat exchangerDevice that transfers heat from one material or medium to another. An air-to-air heat exchanger, or heat-recovery ventilator, transfers heat from one airstream to another. A copper-pipe heat exchanger in a solar water-heater tank transfers heat from the heat-transfer fluid circulating through a solar collector to the potable water in the storage tank. to pull energy from domestic gray water to preheat potable hot water.
  • Solar tubes for indoor lighting

One of the group's primary goals was to design a net-zero home that both public and private housing providers could afford, the website says. There's more about the project in this YouTube video.

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Image Credits:

  1. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon via Flickr Creative Commons license

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