Desert Sunrise Wins Design Excellence Award

by Malcolm Woods

A team of University of Nevada, Las Vegas students and faculty just won a Design Excellence Award for a house designed for the Moapa Band of Southern Paiute Indians. The team of engineering and architecture students, mainly from UNLV's Building Sciences and Sustainability graduate concentration, entered the Desert Sunrise Home in the Department of Energy's annual Race To Zero Student Design Competition. Race to Zero challenges teams from collegiate institutions to design zero energy homes that meet the pressure of real-world scenarios and the demands of mainstream builders.

The Desert Sunrise Team

The Desert Sunrise team decided to address the housing challenges experienced on the Moapa River Indian Reservation, where no new housing has been built since 1978. "Our team exceeded the mandatory performance targets set by DOE's Zero Energy Ready Home specification under the challenging economic realities of the Moapa Paiute and the context of the Mojave Desert," said Professor Alfredo Fernández-González, lead faculty advisor for the team.

The Desert Sunrise Team
The Desert Sunrise Team

The UNLV team worked closely with the Moapa Paiute, toured the Reservation and met with Chairman Darren Daboda and the Moapa Tribal Council. Desert Sunrise is designed to reflect multiple aspects of life on the Moapa River Reservation. These aspects include Paiute cultural values, the physical environment of the Mojave Desert and the challenging economic realities facing the tribe, where the average annual income is $30,000 a year.

For example, the house is designed to be consistent with the way the Moapa Paiute actually live in their homes. The interior features a large, open social area to accommodate customary family and community gatherings. Desert Sunrise is ADA compliant since households on the reservation are often multi-generational. Whenever possible, the team focused on durability, since homes on the Reservation are passed down from one generation to the next.

The Design Elements

Design elements reflect geographical features of the Moapa Valley that have cultural significance for the Paiute. The lines of the roof recall the "Shadow of the Eagle," a shape that appears on the nearby mountains at certain times of day. For its logo, the team used a stylization of the flower from a creosote bush, a plant the Paiute have traditionally valued for religious, medicinal and utilitarian purposes.

The Desert Sunrise team aimed to combine "culture and tradition with the hard data of a building science approach," said Ludwing Vaca, the team leader. Among many other features, the shape and orientation of the house are the products of extensive modeling and testing to determine the most efficient combination of the two. The angle of the roof is optimized for summer energy production from photovoltaic solar panels. A Trombe wall (a passive solar building technique) captures heat from the sun and releases it slowly into the house overnight.

Desert Sunrise exists in design only. Unlike the longer and more extensive Solar Decathlon competition, Race to Zero teams do not build their project. However, the Tribal Council and UNLV are partnering to find ways to fund and build the first Desert Sunrise Home on the Reservation. The Moapa Band of Southern Paiute hopes to construct this first Desert Sunrise next to the Moapa Travel Center, where it would function as both a showcase and a visitor's center.

You can see the Desert Sunrise Team's Race to Zero presentation here.

About Malcolm Woods

Malcolm Woods is a blogger who enjoys writing about technology and solar power. He has a passion for learning new things, and loves to share his knowledge with others. Malcolm is also an advocate for sustainable living, and believes that everyone has a responsibility to do their part in preserving our planet.

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