University students build energy-efficient house for national competition

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Charles Upshaw, left, mechanical engineering graduate student, stands in front of NexusHaus, a solar-powered home built by a team of UT students. The team will compete in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathalon in California later this month.
Photo Credit: Rachel Zein | Daily Texan Staff

A team led by University of Texas at Austin architecture professor Michael Garrison is designing and building a solar-powered home to compete nationally as part of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

The team began developing NexusHaus — the name of the proposed affordable and energy-efficient house — in 2013. NexusHaus is project between multiple colleges across campus and the architecture department at Technische Universität München (TUM) in Munich, Germany.

Charlie Upshaw, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and co-leader of the project, said one of the biggest challenges for the team was the 2013 government shut down, which caused a delay in funding for several months. Another issue was the actual process of constructing the NexusHaus.

“I’ve never built a house before. None of the students involved are professional contractors,” Upshaw said. “It’s about learning the practical skills, figuring out what works and what doesn’t.”

Garrison said this 800-square-foot house has five elements: zero net energy, modular and mobile, zero water, carbon neutral and affordable.

“Nexus means connection,” assistant professor of architecture and NexusHaus co-faculty advisor Petra Liedl said. “It means the connection between energy and water, which is the concept behind our house, between UT and TUM, culturally.”

Liedl, who holds a doctorate from TUM, started teaching at UT as a faculty fellow in 2012. She was recommended by Werner Lang, another NexusHaus co-faculty advisor, who had returned to TUM after teaching at UT for two years.

Adam Pyrek, a lecturer in the School of Architecture and another NexusHaus co-faculty advisor, taught a class on Solar Decathlon in fall 2014 and spring 2015 semesters.

Pyrek said NexusHaus uses several concepts from the class, such as a rain water system that collects rainwater and reuses it and a chilled water system, which stores cool water produced during nighttime, to be used during daytime.

Tosha Shah, a prospective McCombs MBA student who attended the NexusHaus ribbon cutting at the construction site, said the house is well planned.

“I would absolutely [live here],” Shah said. “It’s going to be a tough competition for the other [Solar Decathlon] participants.”
Upshaw said the team is scheduled to leave for Irvine, California, on Sept. 24. After the competition, NexusHaus will be shipped to McDonald Observatory in West Texas to house scientists and other University staff members.

“We’re changing the world,” Garrison said. “Students are able to put theory into practice.”