Contest highlights innovative thinking, problem solving at UNLV


Steve Marcus

A view of the kitchen and living room in UNLV’s Mojave Bloom smart solar home in Henderson Tuesday, March 30, 2021.

UNLV is defining the idea of powerhouse, in terms of both dominance in a global home design contest and literally powering houses.

For the third time, the university has been named a finalist in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition, an international interdisciplinary event featuring state-of-the-art green homes that run on renewable energy sources. This year’s edition of the biennial contest, which was postponed from last year because of the pandemic, is scheduled for Thursday through Sunday and will be held online with judges evaluating entries in 10 categories.

UNLV took second overall in the competition during its first time out, in 2013, and was the top U.S. team that year — besting such elite schools as Stanford, USC and the University of Arizona. Four years later, UNLV took first place for innovation and second for both engineering and architecture.

Now UNLV returns with their new entry, the 628-square-foot Mojave Bloom house, which combines advanced engineering with soothing, highly attractive design elements. The solar-powered home was designed around a theme of helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder transition back to civilian life, and features such elements as a courtyard with diffused lighting, raised planters and a living green wall planted with robust desert vines. Inside and out are elements that both enhance the living experience and serve a purpose conservation-wise: The walls are thick and heavily insulated, for instance, which cuts down heat loss and gain in the structure while also muffling noises that can trigger anxiety.

As with UNLV’s previous entries, Mojave Bloom offers a glimpse into a possible future of desert dwelling that is comfortable while also being far advanced in sustainability. High-tech features include a sophisticated heating, cooling and air handling system that incorporates mini heat pumps and eutectic salt that liquifies at high temperatures and absorbs heat from incoming air. In place of a traditional water heater, there’s a solar thermal tube system that warms water for home use and to provide radiant heating in the floor.

It’s gorgeous — both aesthetically and from an engineering standpoint.

As reported recently by the Sun’s Sara MacNeil, more than 50 UNLV students took part in the design and construction of the home. They included students pursuing degrees in architecture, computer science, psychology, engineering and graphic design. And no wonder they wanted to be part of the project: Not only was it a chance to make a difference for the environment, but UNLV officials report that students who took part in previous competitions received prompt offers from businesses for jobs and elite internships.

Regardless of how this year’s competition turns out, the team has scored a huge victory for Las Vegas in becoming just one of nine finalists.

Once again, it presented the world with a showcase of the remarkable talent of the faculty, researchers and students at our university.

By putting Las Vegas on the cutting edge of low-impact home design, the UNLV team is also elevating our community’s potential to grow a green-construction industry that can help diversify our economy and reduce our reliance on tourism and gaming.

One team member on the Mojave Bloom project is already heading in that direction. Alejandro Munoz, a construction management major, told MacNeil that he hoped to establish a career in Las Vegas with a construction company focusing on sustainable design. He’s off to a promising start, as his work on UNLV’s entry helped him land an internship with local builder McCarthy Building Companies and an opportunity to work on the construction of Circa, downtown’s new resort.

“I grew up here seeing different buildings go up,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunities in Vegas for construction.”

Thanks to the work of Munoz and his teammates, those opportunities include projects that will greatly lower the environmental impact of living in the desert.

It’s an exciting thought. We tip our cap to the innovators at UNLV who are lighting the way toward a better future.

For more about Mojave Bloom, including a video overview, visit solar.egr.unlv.edu.