Team Web site:

Before the Solar Decathlon competition had even closed, Team California was raking in recognition, including a first place finish in the Architectural Design and Communications (such as education and branding) categories, a third-place finish in Market Viability, and a never-ceasing line of eager spectators waiting to get in.

“It’s just now sinking in,” says Kyle Belcher, an architecture student who graduated in May from the California College of the Arts. Belcher and his fellow architecture, art, and design students worked on the house for two years along with fellow team members from the University of Santa Clara, which focuses on engineering and business.
The Refract House, named for its bent form and its ability to control light, is part of the bi-annual Solar Decathlon competition, which features 20 student-designed-and-built dwellings on display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., through Oct. 18.

While Team California won third place overall in the 2007 Solar Decathlon competition, it did not fare well in the design segment, ranking 18th out of 20 teams. 

“The whole design phase was revamped,” says Mike Sizemore, a Santa Clara student who worked on the technology, engineering, and construction applications. For the 2009 event, the Team California home has a traditional look, but with a modern twist.

One of the most prominent parts of the project, which features 630 square feet of conditioned space and 170 square feet of unconditioned space, is its arrangement: The house curls around a courtyard, which helps control the amount of light that enters the house and centers the structure around the deck, connecting it to each room.

“We were trying to talk about the California climate,” says Annessa Mattson, a graduate architecture student from the College of the Arts and the architectural lead, “and the idea of living in your landscape.”

To address another major California initiative--conserving water--downspouts on top of the house direct rainwater to a harvesting pool. “What’s different about the way we collect water is we have a beautiful container for it; it’s a reflecting pool,” Mattson notes.

The rainwater is used to irrigate plants, and is passively filtered by natural materials, such as native plants and gravel.

The pool matches the activity of California’s wetlands so that it’s more sustainable. In the summer, it dries out to become a rock garden. In the winter, it fills up into a rain garden.

Water conservation continues inside the home, including Uponor’s recirculation pump, which drains lukewarm water in the hot water line and replaces it with hot water. The product has a motion sensor that activates it when someone walks into the bathroom, so the pump runs only when necessary.

An electronic monitoring system tracks the use of water and controls other systems, such as lighting. The system was designed with help from members of Santa Clara’s 2007 Solar Decathlon team, who formed the company Valence Energy, the team’s Web site states.

The system includes a weather monitoring mode that calculates rainfall, decides when to water plants, and keeps track of how much water is in the reflecting pool. The device also informs homeowners of how much money the radiant heating and cooling system is saving them, compared with conventional methods. And, it breaks down where the most energy is being consumed  so homeowners can change their behavior to conserve more.

This data can be accessed on a screen in the house, from a remote computer via the Internet, or through an iPhone.

Among the home’s other interesting products are recycled vinyl billboards used for  waterproofing and Sealection Agribalance spray-foam insulation made of vegetable oil. Other details include SunPower 225 solar panels, reclaimed redwood siding, and reclaimed elm flooring.

But it’s the overall ambiance the student-builders appreciate most.

“All of us wish we could take the house with us. It’s made for entertaining,” Belcher states. “It’s made for you to have a nice glass of wine and share the deck outside with friends.”

Victoria Markovitz is Associate Editor for Custom Home, ProSales, and Building Products.