While many school districts continue to struggle with inefficient, outdated mechanical systems, that is not the case for Little Dipper Elementary School. In fact, through Passive House design principles and exceptional environmental stewardship, the Tecate, California-based district is enjoying the comfort of net-positive energy performance. 

Located 1,500 feet from the Mexico border, designers faced numerous challenges on this project, including the hot Southern California climate. Opting for both passive and active systems, the team implemented iterative simulations and integrated sensors to accomplish its goals. Active systems can be switched on automatically, providing fail-safe performance, and manual systems can be activated by occupants via alerts. 



The design team reduced the volume of conditioned space by integrating covered outdoor circulation and gathering spaces. The team also utilized passive climate systems, such as solar chimneys, low windward vents, natural ventilation, and evaporative cooling, minimizing the demand on the mechanical systems. 

Designers specified numerous other efficiency elements, including thick walls on the east and west to reduce heat gain and increase thermal lag, radiant heat was installed within the concrete floors to help achieve optimal comfort, and passive chilled beams were designed to help cool rising hot air. Windward intake vents were located above an evaporative cooling pond to help ease the cooling load, roof monitors were installed to help evenly distribute daylight, energy recovery ventilators were implemented to optimize the amount of incoming fresh air, and much more. 

With the proposed passive climate systems, the district achieved a projected site energy use intensity (EUI) of 13. Once the 6,030-square-foot photovoltaic system was installed, the site achieved an EUI of negative 10. 

Who’s Responsible?

Such detailed design would lead one to assume this work was completed by competent professionals with years of experience, right? Wrong. The designers responsible for the work at Little Dipper Elementary lack years of experience. In fact, they’re not professionals at all – they’re students.

University of Oregon architecture students Garrett Leaver (BArch, class of 2021), Katharine Marple (MArch II, class of 2021), Danielle Valdez (BArch, class of 2021), and student designer David Deussen (MArch II, class of 2021) — better known as Team Polaris — under the tutelage of architecture and environment professor Ihab Elzeyadi, entered the project into the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2020 competition. Team Polaris beat out 45 other teams for the honor of grand champion in the commercial category. 

Throughout this journey, the students set lofty goals, hoping to achieve much more than just optimal architectural and engineering performance. 

“Climate change, border injustice, and overconsumption – how can we teach children about these global challenges, and how can design teach children about these global challenges,” asked Leaver. 

The Little Dipper project served as much more than a classroom assignment; it will forever operate as a cornerstone to environmental stewardship, said Valdez.

“This project asks not only how a building can produce as much or more energy than it uses, but how a design, in every regard, can inspire children to be responsible stewards of their environment, ecosystem, and community.”

Solar Decathlon

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Decathlon is a collegiate competition designed to inspire student teams to design and build highly efficient buildings powered by renewables while also taking into consideration affordability, resilience, and occupant health. Teams that best blend architectural and engineering excellence with innovation in how their building interacts with the world around it are declared grand champions. 

The competition features two tracks: the Design Challenge and the Build Challenge. Through six completed design challenges and eight build challenges, the event boasts more than 40,000 participants and 2 million house visits. The event's popularity has even spurred 12 international events. 
Anticipation is building as the winners of the 2021 Build Challenge competition are scheduled to be announced on April 15-18. 

The Solar Decathlon is an exceptional opportunity for budding architects/engineers to gain some hands-on experience, gain ownership of their own project, and make a lasting difference in the world. Is your school up to the challenge? Do you have what it takes to follow in the footsteps of Team Polaris’ Little Dipper design? Now is the time to start building your 2022 Design Challenge or 2023 Build Challenge project teams, seeking support from the university, and drafting the basic elements of your project. Draft your application today, and, who knows, maybe you’ll soon find yourself featured within this publication. For more information on future Solar Decathlon competitions, visit https://www.solardecathlon.gov.