Tiny house: School of Mines students aim to win the 2019 Solar Decathlon

Martin Voelker
CRES Jefferson County Chapter

Everyone expects students at the Colorado School of Mines to dig deep but one student group is digging in less familiar terrain. Their ambition is to win the 2019 Solar Decathlon building an off-grid solar tiny house.

The Solar Decathlon is an initiative by the U.S. Department of Energy for collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are “cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.” The team represented by graduate student Ethan Palay at the Colorado Renewable Energy Society’s Jefferson County chapter’s event on Green Architecture on August 25 has a core of 20 students. Students from the University of Colorado Denver are also involved. They receive some guidance from faculty, including the Director of the Undergraduate Energy Minor, physicist Professor Timothy Ohno, and several industry experts as consultants. Golden architect Peter Ewers is helping them as well.

The goal: A net zero house, powered only by solar energy, off grid, and relying on battery storage. But the tiny house has an additional purpose. It will be decked out with a variety of sensors testing the efficacy of green building technologies, including hi-tech windows, shading strategies, the use of thermal mass and phase change material, as well as the potential for plants to improve indoor air quality. Effects of volatile organic compounds is actually of special interest to the new Mines President, Dr. Paul Johnson, who strongly supports the group. And they plan to ‘open-source’ their data to allow other researchers to analyze them.

The group decided to stick to the restrictive tiny house concept because it made this pilot project more manageable, allowing them to optimize the design for the Denver climate, and to test risky ideas.

With only two years to go until the finished house needs to be trailer-shipped to the competition site at Denver International Airport in September 2019 the team is already deep into the design and testing phase. They have one year to prepare their formal application and once they clear that first hurdle will finish the final design, step up their fundraising and then build and test the home between March and August of 2019.

The road ahead is not an easy one, as Ethan Palay readily admits. Having talked to participants in earlier competitions he learned that it’s not unusual that students will need to extend their enrollment for another year to make it all work — an admirable commitment.

At present they could use the help of professionals to consult on general construction and electrical design, and they are hoping for donations of windows, PV panels, and batteries, as well as monetary donations.

Regardless of whether they win in this tough national competition their tiny house already has a place on the Mines’ campus guaranteed where it will remain. And this October 1st they’re already taking part in the 2016 Golden Tour of Solar and Sustainable Homes.

If you can offer support or need more information contact: minestinyhouse@gmail.com. Watch the talk on the CRES YouTube channel.