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WSU team builds net zero electric home for international competition

Team ranked among top 10 finalists

SHARE WSU team builds net zero electric home for international competition

Weber State University professor Jeremy Farner looks over solar panels on a highly efficient electric home in Ogden on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. WSU faculty and students have spent the last year working with the city of Ogden to create a highly efficient, 100% electric home as part of a competition hosted by the Department of Energy.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

OGDEN — If Janae Thomas-Watson could get on the roof of this home in Ogden, she’d wave a flag to get the attention of community planners, developers and members of the construction community and yell: “Come see the future, come see this.”

The “this” is a net zero energy home built from the ground up on a vacant lot at 2807 Quincy Avenue. It was donated by the city of Ogden as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon in which the proposal by Weber State University’s team of students and faculty was ranked among the top 10 projects in the world for the ongoing competition.

Net zero means all the energy needed for the home is produced on site, with 39 solar rooftop panels and battery storage that means it can be off-grid for 72 hours, or even longer.

About 150 schools applied to be part of the decathlon, and Weber State University’s proposal was among 10 around the world selected to compete and prove their project is worthy of top honors. Other competitors hail from the Netherlands and South Africa.

After WSU’s team was selected, it had about a year to pull it all together.

They broke ground in December and are already awaiting a certificate of occupancy from the city, a short amount of time from start to finish.

From the beginning, Thomas-Watson said the project embraced challenges she hopes catch the judges’ attention.

“Ours is the largest build,” she said. “We did a larger build because of the real estate market in Utah.”

Other projects are likely to be modular or mobile, but this is a six-bedroom house of 2,450 square feet firmly rooted on its lot in Ogden.

Because it is all electric, there isn’t any furnace or ductwork — one way energy losses can occur.

There are individual control panels in rooms to control temperature.

“You are really intentional on conditioning the space that you use” to make it as energy efficient as possible, she said.

Thomas-Watson, who recently graduated from Weber State with a bachelor’s degree in construction management, said the team used a special insulated concrete for the foundation that fits together like Lego blocks and insulated pre-manufactured panels for the walls that feature 6 inches of foam.

“We are really tightening up that building envelope, keeping the conditioned air where it belongs so our mechanical systems run less, and we’re saving energy.”

Thomas-Watson, who is the student lead project manager, said the home was designed to house multiple generations, with ADA-sized doorways and open space to allow for wheelchairs. The energy costs for the entire year to power the home will be $100 or less, something she said would bode well for families who often struggle with paying sometimes hundreds of dollars a month for natural gas and electricity, on top of a mortgage.

Jeremy Farner is the faculty lead on the project.

“I teach both architecture and construction management so it was a perfect fit to oversee a project that includes both design and construction.”

The effort on Quincy Avenue was the senior project for over 30 students at WSU and also pulled in groundwork from students at the Davis Technical College and other technical colleges with the Ogden university.

Farner said they started with a budget of $250,000, but at conclusion are probably closer to $300,000 — costs that were paid for through an extensive fundraising campaign on campus.

He added it has also been a desire of his to enter the Solar Decathlon, but its previous rules precluded the university from entering because of the expense.

Until this competition, participants constructed a modular or mobile home, broke it down and took it to Washington, D.C., then broke it down again and brought it back to the host community.

“Building a home, taking it to D.C. and then transporting it back home, that did not speak to sustainable to me,” Farner said.

As part of the competition, the home will need to undergo tests to determine its level of energy efficiency, with results forwarded to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“I feel pretty confidently, actually. We just barely saw for the first time our competitors’ design and we are by far the largest design, and we also have some really good numbers. We built a super tight home,” Farner said.

Thomas-Watson said she hopes the project can be an inspiration for how new homes can be designed to be more energy efficient and less polluting when it comes to air quality.

“I want to speak to the future of building in Utah. When I look at the home we built up there, I think there is a sense of stewardship that planning committees need to be aware of. When they look at a permit, they should ask how they can turn it to net zero. “

The Utah Division of Air Quality predicts that in a few years, area sources such as homes and other buildings will be the primary source of Utah’s problem with fine particulate pollution.

“I think if we can get ahead of the curve — fight that now — and we are able to educate homeowners, builders and planning departments and cities, I think that is the goal of this home is to say how we can do it differently than we always have,” she said.

The home is expected to go on the market sometime in July after it gets appraised.