What happens when an architect and an engineer walk into a Jesuit university in Silicon Valley and end up on a lightbender wholly rolling for the nation’s capital? This year’s Solar Decathlon, a Dept. of Energy best-of competition for smart and sunny houses, chose Team California to compete in the finals in Washington, D.C. The West Coast team is the  result of two very different schools joining forces — 100+ students, graduates and advisers were pooled from Santa ClaraUniversity (mostly engineering) and California College of the Arts (architecture and design) to create this solar dream team that created this truly energy-efficient, sun-powered Refract House.

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On Sept. 1, the team celebrated completion of their work-in-progress with a special “send-off” that also kicked off the local annual Architecture and the City Festival. The public can tour the Refract House at SCU through Sept. 9, after which, the home will be broken down (from the outside in) for the long haul to Washington’s mall and the decathlon.

For approximately $500,000 and tons of community support, the California crew artfully blends high- and low-tech features throughout the Refract House in an eco-savvy, out-of-the-box demo of attractive, comfortable and energy-efficient living — the three main principles of the decathlon. “Energy efficient homes don’t need to be funky,” declares Mike Splinter, CEO of Applied Materials, the team’s top sponsor. “[The students] have shown and proven that it can be beautiful and effective.”

Team CA outfitted the requisite 800 sq. ft. with the three Ws — windows, wire and wood — then brilliantly wrapped it all around a central courtyard for a bold mix of functional minimalism and expansive environment. “Each primary living space extends into that central courtyard as the physical and conceptual core of the house,” says project manager Kyle Belcher.

Natural breezes ventilate the home, and water tubes hidden above and below radiantly heat the floor and cool the ceiling as needed. Select noble gases inside the double- and triple-paned windows help mediate the sun’s influence. Walls come insulated with vegetable oil-based polyurethane and used denim for sustainable comfort, all lit up by LEDs for kicking back with the LCD TV.

Shade screens adjust, a table rolls, and the washer and dryer stack. A waterproof bathroom, biodegradable bed, and handcrafted dishes, textiles and fixtures exquisitely balance the efficient appliances and consoles. Outside, planter boxes of native flora and an edible garden lead to an attractive pool, inspired by “evolved riparian zones” (sublime practicality) with gravel and plants to help filter and clean the greywater and soil.

A sprinkling of silicon from the valley lets you monitor and manage it all remotely or on-site from the user’s touchscreen of choice: laptop, iPod/phone or in-house dashboard. “People are wary of smart houses that make decisions for them,” explains Preet Anand, a project specialist and board member, “so we decided to keep ours resident-driven.”

And student-driven, as well, emphasizing California’s status as the only team led by undergraduates. Negotiations also are underway to reopen the Refract House outside a major city hall in the SF Bay Area upon Team California’s return. See more about it all on video at CBS 5, ABC 7and YouTube.

+ Refract House

+ Solar Decathlon

+ Architecture and the City Festival