OGDEN — College graduates often end their final semester of school with an in-depth research project culminating in a lengthy and detailed scholarly paper.
But for a group of students from the department of construction and building sciences at Weber State University, their 2020 senior project entailed designing — and building — a six-bedroom house.
“It really has been cool,” said Janae Thomas-Watson, the student project manager who recently graduated from Weber. “For our student project, we built a house. When people ask, ‘What did you do for your senior project?’ do you say, ‘I wrote a paper’? Nope. The university trusted us with $300,000 for a house.”
And not just any house. The recently completed new home at 2807 Quincy Ave. is a high-tech, high-efficiency wonder. An all-electric, net-zero house.
Jeremy Farner, an associate professor in the university’s building design and construction program, was the advisor for this senior project. It’s part of a two-year competition for the Department of Energy, called the 2020 Solar Decathlon. Ten teams from around the world were invited to design and construct homes powered by renewable energy, and Weber State was one of the finalists.
The home has plenty of bells and whistles. For starters, it’s airtight and “super-insulated,” according to the university. It features cutting-edge heating and cooling technology and sports backup batteries to keep the home’s critical functions going for 72 hours in the event of an emergency. On the roof are 39 solar panels, enough to completely power the home — plus, keep an electric vehicle charged.
Farner says most of the energy produced will stay in the home, since you lose 6 cents on the dollar every time you sell energy back to the Rocky Mountain Power grid. It’s estimated that the yearly energy costs for the home will be just $108 a year, which covers the monthly connection fee to the power grid.
With 1,270 square feet on the main floor and another 1,270 in a full basement, the home includes six bedrooms, two bathrooms, and two family rooms. Built in the Craftsman architectural style, it was designed to both blend in nicely with the older homes in the neighborhood and showcase a net-zero energy lifestyle.
WSU’s interior design department also got involved in the project; it staged the home and put the finishing touches on the insides. The house already has furniture; it will carry two price tags — one furnished, the other unfurnished.
“It’s even got artwork on the walls,” Farner said.
The home also has little touches that tie it to Ogden and Weber State. The art in the living room is an homage to Ogden and the railroad, and the front door is painted a subtle purple shade in honor of the WSU Wildcats.
Farner and the rest of the team are pleased with the way the home turned out.
“All the neighbors who come by and walk through it, every single one says, ‘Man, I want to move into this home — this is really great.’”
Even more telling, according to Farner, is the fact that the professionals want this home.
“Every subcontractor who came in offered to buy the home,” he said. “It started with our framer, then our sheetrocker, our painter, and our cabinet maker — who wanted to buy it for his son. That tells me we did a good job.”
The build wasn’t without its difficulties. For one, it’s an extremely narrow lot, so the home could only be 24 feet wide. Basically, it’s like a double-wide trailer.
“Double-wide is right,” Farner said. “I was so nervous, thinking, ‘Oh man, we’ve got to execute this perfectly.’ But everybody walks in and says they thought it was going to feel tight.”
The house features an open floor plan with no hallways — you can literally see the back door from the front door. Still, it feels much bigger than it is, according to Farner.
“It’s like a double-wide, but it doesn’t feel like a double-wide,” he said.
However, Farner confesses that the bedrooms are quite small: “There’s no other way to say that.”
Farner believes it’s more difficult to design a small house than a large one.
“Anybody can design a McMansion, but it takes a good designer to take a small space and turn it into something like this,” he said. “I’m proud of my students. We had a tight budget and a narrow lot, and it all came together.”
Partnering with Weber State on the Quincy Avenue project was Ogden City and the Ogden Civic Action Network, which is committed to revitalizing the east-central neighborhood in Ogden.
WSU’s Solar Decathlon house was originally going to be built in Salt Lake City, but Farner says that one fell through due to zoning issues.
So last fall, the WSU team approached Ogden City.
“And they said, ‘Yes, we’re very interested,’” Farner said.
The lot had been empty for almost 10 years, after a dilapidated four-plex was torn down, according to a news release from WSU.
“Ogden wanted to take a lot that had been empty for 10 years and put something beautiful on it,” Farner said. “And OCAN wanted to infuse the neighborhood with this net-zero home. So this was a way to give back to the community and beautify it, and meet the needs of the competition.”
The house on Quincy is the fifth WSU students have built in this way. The first four were in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity and went to disadvantaged families. This latest home will be sold, with the proceeds plowed back into next year’s home project at the school.
Students like Thomas-Watson worked side-by-side with professionals from the building industry on the Quincy Avenue home. Farner said Weber State didn’t want to be placed in a position where it was taking business away from companies in the community, so they hired a general contractor and subcontractors “to make our money infuse into the economy without taking business from other people.”
The house will be sold for its appraised price — Farner’s guessing in the $350,000 to $400,000 range. It will be sold in a lottery, with the winning bid picked from all qualifying offers at the asking price.
“We’re not interested in getting money. We’re interested in selling it to someone who will allow us to continue to study the home as time goes on,” Farner said.
They’ll be looking at things like energy usage and production data.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Coming from a background in both fashion and real estate, Thomas-Watson went on to earn her degree from Weber in construction management, with an emphasis on building design and business. She says going into the construction industry makes economic sense, particularly for women.
“There’s such a shortage of labor in construction,” Thomas-Watson said. “Construction is also an industry that pays women as much as men.”
For her, the career choice has already paid off. As a nontraditional, older, single parent (she’s since remarried), the Bountiful woman says her schooling basically paid for itself. And unlike many others who end up with crushing student debt upon graduation?
“I graduated in April with $10,000 in my pocket,” she said. “Who else can say that in 2020 they graduated without any student debt?”
Thomas-Watson encourages single mothers and other women to consider a similar path. As an at-risk population, she says women can find access to all sorts of grants, scholarships and mentorships in the construction field.
And not only has Thomas-Watson found a promising career, she believes she’s helping to make a difference in the world.
“To build a home like this also helps solve our air quality, which is one of the biggest challenges we’ll face in the next 20 to 30 years,” she said.
It’s not just an environmental issue, although that’s important, according to Thomas-Watson. It’s also an economic issue.
“If our air quality continues to be less desirable, we won’t have companies coming to Utah,” she said. “So literally, solving air quality, to me, is the most important thing we can do.”
With the proceeds from the Quincy Avenue sale, WSU students will build next year’s house. The university has established the Student Construction Capital Revolving Fund, so that the proceeds from this and future projects will be reinvested in a perpetual cycle.
Ogden City has already given the school a second lot to develop, at 2363 Jackson Ave.
Construction on the new home probably won’t start until late spring 2021, according to Farner. By contrast, the hole for the foundation on the Quincy Avenue house was dug Jan. 3.
“One thing we did learn from this house is we don’t want to work through winter conditions again,” Farner laughed.
Farner said that if someone is going to put solar panels on a house, going all-electric “makes a ton of sense” — at least on new construction.
“In the interest of full disclosure, the challenge in Utah is that natural gas is so cheap that if you already have it coming to your home it doesn’t make a lot of sense to go all-electric,” Farner said. “But if you’re starting new construction, all-electric pays for itself from day one.”
Ironically, Farner said Dominion Energy was “feeling left out” and reached out to the university. The school is considering teaming up with the natural gas company on a future project.
“They may want to partner on our next home, which would be net-zero and gas — we haven’t made the decision yet,” he said.
THE REAL WORLD
Although WSU had hoped to offer an open house for the home on Quincy Avenue, COVID-19 scrapped those plans. However, there are photos and a virtual open house — along with other features — on the project’s website at weber.edu/solardecathlon.
And Farner says the entire home-building project is open-source — the plans, the specifications, everything — for those who want to do something similar with their own home.
As the sustainability manager at Weber State, Jennifer Bodine, was also involved with the Quincy Avenue project. She said the university has long been working on sustainable, all-electric buildings on campus, but it also wanted to demonstrate that same commitment on a residential scale.
In addition to the technology that the new home showcases, Bodine said the project offered WSU students valuable hands-on experience in their chosen field.
“I think the thing that has been so fun is watching our students get that real-world experience — it’s not just a class they took,” she said. “At the end of the day, these students can take their families past this house and say, ‘Hey, I worked on that house.’”
Farner agrees, saying his students really put their management skills to the test and had to make adjustments on the fly — just like in the real world.
“To me, that’s the best education you can give a student,” he said.
And Thomas-Watson says she’s living proof of this kind of quality education.
“There were a lot of things that blindsided us in the project that we didn’t anticipate,” she said. “It was real life. We got to live in this real-life experience without being a company that could go bankrupt. We got to fail safely, and to do that as a student? What? That adds so much to a student’s education.”