University of Arizona architecture students won first place in a national competition for a project that reimagines the way buildings store energy for cooling.
The team was among four finalists from the university in the Department of Energy's 2020 Solar Decathlon Design Challenge. Another one of the teams earned an honorable mention.
Their competitors included student teams from 36 higher education institutions from around the world, all tasked with designing projects that solve real-world problems in the building industry. The winning team of fourth-year undergraduate architecture students had just three members – Elizabeth Franzen, Rachel Schultz and Hao Wang – compared to the teams they competed against, which often had up to two dozen students per team, plus multiple faculty advisers.
The teams presented their designs to expert jurors.
"Being able to be recognized for your passion and having people tell you that what you're doing is really important was inspiring," Franzen said. "It makes you feel like you're ready to step into the world and make a big difference."
The four UArizona teams each designed one component of a larger project called SunBlock, a concept for a section of the Myers Neighborhood on the south end of midtown Tucson. SunBlock rethinks the traditional configuration of district energy systems, which are used to heat or cool collections of buildings, said Jonathan Bean, an assistant professor of architecture and sustainable built environments and the team's faculty adviser.
District energy systems typically involve one central plant that creates heated or cooled water, then pumps it around to the other buildings within the district. The buildings take that water and pass it through an air handling unit. Air is then passed over the water to heat or cool the building.
The SunBlock concept, designed specifically for the Sonoran Desert, focuses on cooling. The main way it is different from a traditional district energy system is that each SunBlock building would have its own solar-powered system that cools the water, rather than one central building doing it all.
Because the buildings are built so efficiently, the cooling system would provide more cold water than needed. The extra water could be stored in underground tanks and shared with existing and less efficient buildings throughout the neighborhood.
The project addresses sustainability from a number of angles: The buildings' electricity is provided with solar power; the system does not use traditional air conditioning systems that use refrigerants, which are polluters; and the underground water tanks can also collect rainwater for irrigation.