Gabrielle Heffernan didn’t always plan to pursue a career in architecture.
But after taking a class called Architecture and Humanity during her freshman year at UF, Heffernan decided to make the switch.
“I realized that even though I really do love the technical side of things, I couldn’t be satisfied in a career where I wasn’t making things with my hands on a daily basis and really getting creative,” Heffernan, 20, said.
Now a junior, Heffernan has the opportunity to get the hands-on experience she wanted. She is one of about 70 students building a fully livable solar-powered house as part of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, which will be held from Oct. 8 to Oct. 18 in Irvine, California.
UF was one of 20 schools selected in February 2014 to participate in the program, said Bradley Walters, a UF architecture professor and one of the faculty advisers of UF’s team.
The specifications of the house are detailed, but the goal is simple: All of the energy used in the house will be derived from the sun.
Solar thermal tubing will be the main source for heating up the house’s water, while 21 solar panels lining the roof will provide the energy for just about everything else.
The UF group is working on the project in conjunction with Santa Fe College and the National University of Singapore.
Students from Singapore came to UF last summer to help with the project, and Heffernan said the two groups had similar design logic because Gainesville and Singapore have similar climates.
But, Heffernan said, the Singapore students took different approaches to house-building because of the country’s construction norms.
“It was interesting to kind of see those two come together and really see how we could use that combination to make the best house that we could,” she said.
Walters and a couple students started working on initial plans during Spring 2014, but the project didn’t fully take off until Summer.
Bobby Smith, a first-year UF architecture graduate student, said the goal of the Summer semester was to create the main schematics for the house.
“We did a lot of small-scale design,” said Smith, 23. “Over time, we came into groups and started to make group decisions and then merged into one decision.”
The cost to build the house is about $200,000, Walters said, and does not include travel to California for the competition.
Walters said prices have increased because of specifications the competition is requiring in the house, such as a sprinkler system and safety factors with the house’s decking.
“We think realistically, if we were going to build this kind of house here on a site in Florida, it would be much more economical,” Walters said. “But we’re building it in a modular way to meet the competition requirements.”
The group’s toughest goal, Heffernan said, is figuring out how to get the house to California in a cost-efficient manner.
They are building the house in a series of five modules, which they will practice putting together and taking apart at Santa Fe prior to heading to California, Heffernan said. The individual modules will be craned onto trucks and driven to California, where the group will reassemble it on-site.
“You don’t just put it together like ‘Oh, maybe it’ll work,’” she said. “No, it has to work.”
Smith and Heffernan both said the experience gained from the project has been invaluable.
“I didn’t think when I started here I’d be building a house,” Smith said. “That’s not cheap and it’s pretty hard. But I’m so glad I have the opportunity to do this.”
[A version of this story ran on page 8 on 2/23/2015 under the headline “UF students build livable solar-powered house for competition"]
A rendering depicts the driveway area of the Solar Living House, a house a group of about 70 UF students will create as part of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. The house will be completely powered by solar energy and presented from Oct. 8-18 in Irvine, California, for the competition.