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Sacramento College Holds Contest for Tiny Solar Homes

A Tiny House Competition, employing the motto “Build Small and Win Big” was held Saturday, October 15th, at Consumnes River College in Sacramento, CA. (The judging occurred on Friday, October 14th, and the actual exhibition took place the following day.) The purpose of the contest was to promote, according to the organizers, “an interest in energy conservation, energy efficiency and green building and solar technologies.” The competition is modeled after the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon and is sponsored by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) Energy Education & Technology Center and Community Solar programs.

The event was inspired by the currently popular “tiny house” movement. (What distinguishes tiny homes from mobile or modular homes is individualized design.) The size limit for each of the houses was 400 square feet, and all homes had to be built on wheels and be constructed within a $25,000 budget. School teams competed for $30,000 in cash and for trophies. The winner of the grand prize of $10,000 was Santa Clara University. The university also won for the Communications and Energy categories, as well as in six of the subcategories: Best Daylighting, Best Integrated Lighting, Best Interior Design, Best Kitchen Design, Best Program and Best Tour.

During the two years leading up to the event, students designed and built energy-efficient houses. All of the homes employed solar panels. An educator or other school administrator mentored each team, and a stipend of between $3,000 to $8,000 was provided. Competition categories were architectural design, livability, communication, affordability, energy efficiency and balance, appliance load, technology/electrical and mechanical systems, transportation, sustainability and documentation.

The purpose of the competition, as Brent Sloan, a solar specialist for SMUD, said, was educational. “Sometimes you learn more with a hammers and a nail,” he said, “than you do reading about hammers and nails.” A UC Berkeley student, Caroline Karman, agreed, saying that the contest “was an opportunity to put into practice what I’m learning in theory.” Another student, Tricia Tecson of Consumnes River College, said that “Our ideas… as great as they are, also have to be tangible. We also learned about collaboration.”

Different teams took different approaches to dealing with energy issues. The Sacramento State team used a separate solar thermal device to generate hot water. The Santa Clara team (the winners) built its tiny home on a rotating porch to maximize captured sunlight. Energy for the houses was saved in battery banks. This turned out to be useful on Friday, when the sky turned overcast and the houses could no longer utilize the sun’s energy.

The total space of each house was equivalent to the average bedroom of a normal home. The competition is good for the public, Sloan claimed, because it exposes them to tiny homes as a possibility. Tiny homes are increasingly popular. Concerning the reason for this popularity, Consumnes River College instructional assistant Carlos Carrasco said, “[Homeowners] don’t want to be stuck in a mortgage for 30, 40, 50 years.”

After the competition ends, each school gets to choose how its particular home will be used. Sacramento State’s entry will be utilized to teach students about sustainable building and living. Veterans will use the 238-square-foot Santa Clara University entry as a place where they can train their service dogs. The College of the Sequoias sold its home to pay for other projects.


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