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Mines students thinking big with tiny homes

Denver's national sustainability expo to feature house design


They may be small, but tiny homes are a huge thing right now.

And Colorado School of Mines is making one that's even more futuristic.

“We're putting a science-y twist on a pop culture thing,” said Katie Schneider, a junior at Mines majoring in engineering physics.

The Mines Tiny House is a 220-square-foot dwelling that utilizes some of the latest in energy efficient and sustainable technology.

“We're very focused on being net-zero,” Schneider said, who has been involved with the Mines Tiny Home since her freshman year in 2015.

Students have been working on the project for nearly two years. It is an extracurricular project, and all the work has been done after school and on weekends.

Expected completion date will be sometime next spring. Once finished, some of the features will be a composting toilet, automated window shades controlled by a mobile device and a water efficient shower head. It will be propane-free — completely powered by solar — and not even hooked up to utilities.

Timothy Ohno, associate professor of physics and faculty advisor for Mines Tiny House, estimates the value of the home to be about $40,000 or $50,000 once complete.

After it's finished, the tiny home will have a permanent place on campus and used as a classroom and meeting space, as well as an educational and outreach tool in the community, said Emilie Rusch, public information specialist for Mines.

There's been probably between 120 and 150 students who have been involved with the Mines Tiny Home in some way, Ohno said, but the core group has been about 20 students. All majors and classes are represented, Schneider added, but a couple challenges have been that everyone is a fulltime student, and none of them are construction majors. In fact, Mines does not have construction management or architecture programs offered in the curriculum.

“It's been a learn-as-we-go project,” Schneider said. “For the most part, it's been a bunch of engineers thinking about what would be a good placement for a kitchen.”

But, she added, it's something to be incredibly proud of.

“It's a very unique project,” Schneider said. “It's something Mines has never done before.”

In fact, the Mines Tiny Home will be on display at the Sustainability Expo part of the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon this year. The Solar Decathlon is a collegiate competition that challenges student teams to design and build full-size, solar-powered houses. The Sustainability Expo is a consumer-facing exposition showcasing energy solutions and services.

This is the first year for the event to come to Denver, Ohno said, adding it usually takes place in Washington D.C. or California.

“It's a very exciting event for us, as a state, to host,” he said.

For the expo, the desire is to demonstrate the students builidng process, Ohno said. The solar panels and battery will be installed, and some of the framing will be done.

“Visitors will be able to get a behind-the-scenes look at the construction process and the decisions that went into maximizing every square inch of space for livability and energy efficiency,” Rusch said.

To compete in the Solar Decathlon, it takes at least five faculty advisors, and a typical team is about 150 students, Ohno said. The competition is made up of 10 contests that blends design excellence and smart energy production with innovation, market potential, and energy and water efficiency.

“The teams really need two to three years to prepare for it,” he added.

But, Ohno added, participating in the expo will build moral. And building the tiny home will help prepare students for the next Solar Decathlon in 2020 — and Mines is planning on competing that year, Ohno said.

For many of the students involved with the Mines Tiny Home, it's become a passion project, Schneider said.

“I've never been interested in going to energy — I am a physics major pursuing an aerospace career,” she said. But “this just struck my eye as something unique. Everything I'm learning, from working with industry professionals to how to best insulate my home and what windows to buy, will have a huge impact on my life moving forward.”


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