UNLV Architecture professor Eric Weber shows how old-school skills—and a staff of 60 students—can build a house for the future.
UNLV’s Eric Weber is modeling how desert dwellers can live more comfortably and sustainably.
Eric Weber can recall the moment his career goal was set. Growing up in an Air Force family, he had lived all over the US. But when his father was posted to the Spanish island of Minorca, Weber, then a sixth grader, realized the power of architecture. “On my way to school, I passed the stone church in the town square just as the bells were ringing,” he says. “That’s when it hit me: I wanted to make buildings.”
While it was ancient architecture that first inspired him, Weber has earned acclaim for his key role in creating a house of the future: DesertSol, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’s entry in Solar Decathlon 2013. This international competition, sponsored by the US Department of Energy, challenges universities to innovate and build a solar-powered home that’s cost effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.
After being invited to join UNLV’s School of Architecture as a visiting professor in 2010, Weber quickly made his mark by spearheading the school’s bid to enter the Solar Decathlon, a laborious process that ended up taking two years. “Each university had to submit a 30-page technical proposal, demonstrating that they had the organizational capability to complete the project,” he explains. He tasked the fourth-year design students with conceptualizing the proposal over the course of several weeks, with their schemes reviewed by faculty, local architects, and fellow students. In February 2012, Weber’s careful work paid off: UNLV was awarded one of 20 coveted spots in the competition’s final judging. By then an assistant professor, Weber was named principal investigator.
Employing plants that flourish in the desert eliminates the need for irrigation.
UNLV’s proposal was for a 750-square-foot desert vacation home whose solar panels allow it to function entirely off the electrical grid. The project team of about 60 students, most in architecture and engineering, operated under Weber’s watchful eye. “It was a difficult balancing act,” he says, “since I had to make sure the house would meet all the applicable rules, safety codes, and accessibility regulations without undermining the key concepts.”
The house’s exterior, featuring weathered wood and rusted metal panels, recalls the look of an old Mojave Desert mining town. The interior is sleek, comfortable, and functional. A glassed in deck separates the living area from the sleeping quarters, and a rock garden surrounds the home. Precious rainwater is collected for a cooling fountain.
Once the plans were set, Weber supervised the construction of DesertSol on UNLV’s Paradise Campus. He led independent-study courses to help students develop some of the house’s specialized components, such as a fabric acoustic wall and a teak shelving unit. By September, the house was ready to be dismantled into its two main modules and trucked to the competition site in Irvine, California. There it was reassembled and furnished with student-built pieces, plus energy-conserving appliances and fixtures. The landscaping included creosote bushes, barrel cacti, and other hardy plants native to the Mojave.
At its send-off event, the UNLV team received $100,000 from the NV Energy Foundation.
When the judging was over, DesertSol had surpassed all expectations, earning a close second place overall and first place in market appeal. “We were the youngest architecture school competing,” says Weber with pride. “I joked that the winning Austrian team had a 400-year head start.”
The 44-year-old has always been comfortable rolling up his sleeves. When his father started a small construction company in Tucson, Arizona, Weber toiled alongside his dad. Following a stint in the Marine Corps, he studied architecture at Arizona State, then took jobs at several Phoenix architecture firms. “I managed the construction of every project I worked on,” he says, “so when UNLV was looking for someone to kick-start its design-build program, I had the right background. As it turned out, I was the only member of the Solar Decathlon team—faculty or otherwise—with extensive building experience.”
Weber believes that today’s cultural shift away from tool use makes design-build projects especially crucial: “When I was a kid we had shop class; we learned how to make stuff. Now shop has been replaced by computer class, and many students have never handled tools.” Working on a construction site increases one’s awareness, he adds, so “when a student is doing construction drawings, they might think, Will there be enough clearance for somebody to get a wrench on that nut?”
The interior features high-efficiency appliances and a radiant floor system.
UNLV students have high praise for their mentor’s skills. “He was a great motivator,” says Heather Holmstrom, who worked on competition logistics, “and his attention to detail really raised the level of craftsmanship.” Nathan Weber (no relation), who designed DesertSol’s distinctive perforated steel shades featuring laser-cut images of mesquite trees, says, “Professor Weber always encouraged us to come up with our own ideas, but he also kept pushing us in the right direction.”
While Weber and his wife have a house in Phoenix and a condo in Vegas, he says, “I’d be happy to live in the DesertSol house year-round. I love being in the desert, hiking in Red Rock and the Valley of Fire.” His next design-build project is still under wraps, but he hints that it will expand on lessons learned from the Solar Decathlon. Meanwhile, DesertSol will open in February for public tours in its permanent home at the Springs Preserve. “This house will be a catalyst for people to think about how they live in the desert,” Weber says. “Its techniques can be applied to virtually any building project.”
photography by Jim Decker (weber); Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services (DesertSol, interior); Gabe Cl eto (send-off)