Saddleback College architecture, interior design, and horticulture programs incorporate green technology

In recent years, an increased emphasis has been placed on renewable energy, green technology, and sustainable solutions for homes and businesses.

Not only do renewable energy and green technologies contribute to a more sustainable way of living, but they will soon be a requirement. In 2008, California regulators announced that beginning in 2020, all newly built homes in the state of California would have to meet the zero net energy requirement.

What exactly does zero net energy mean? In 2015, it was formally defined by the U.S. Department of Energy as “an energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.” The Department of Energy’s website,, also explains, “generally speaking, a zero energy building produces enough renewable energy to meet its own annual energy consumption requirements, thereby reducing the use of non-renewable energy in the building sector.”

Renewable energy and green technologies are also boosting our local economy. According to the Orange County Register, in 2015 clean tech innovation accounted for 44,000 jobs in the county and 500,000 jobs in the state.

Saddleback College’s architecture, interior design, and horticulture programs, which focus heavily on sustainable practices, are taking note.

When it was announced that the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Solar Decathlon was challenging “collegiate teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive,” the opportunity to get involved was too hard to resist. Students could benefit from applying the future energy and sustainability requirements into a home that would meet today’s and tomorrow’s needs.

With the opportunity to take students out of the classroom and into a real building scenario, Saddleback College joined UC Irvine, Chapman University, and Irvine Valley College to compete as Team Orange County in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Solar Decathlon held at the Orange County Great Park.

The unique collaboration allowed students from each college to offer expertise from specialized areas of study at their respective campuses. Students from Saddleback College provided support in interior design, architecture and drafting, landscaping, and engineering.  While the curriculum in those programs helps students understand the needs of today’s market, the trends in their respective fields, and emerging technologies, the Solar Decathlon provided a unique experience that highlighted real-world complexities.

The house by Team Orange County was dubbed Casa del Sol and drew inspiration from the California state flower: the golden poppy. Like the flower, Casa del Sol was built to be drought-resistant and architecturally adapted to Southern California. Featured elements included an open design with a flex floor plan and separate studio for multigenerational living or a possible rental, solar panels, energy-efficient LED lights, an energy management control system, solar thermal collectors to heat water used in the house, a rainwater collection system, gray water irrigation system, drought resistant landscaping, and an edible vertical garden.

Blake Stephens, professor of architecture and drafting at Saddleback College, shared, “The Solar Decathlon captured the imagination of our architecture, interior design, and horticulture students, offering them a chance to design the future of housing in Southern California. Sustainability in design and construction is one of the pillars of our programs, and the Solar Decathlon was an opportunity to saturate the students in the theory and practicum of a true sustainable, net zero energy, solar house.”

Working in stifling temperatures, collaborating with students from multiple campuses, and tackling problems as they arose and finding solutions were just some of the situations the students addressed during the build. As Saddleback College architectural drafting student Zachary Harris explained, “Designing, documenting, and building an entire residence is a great experience for a student pursuing a career in architecture or engineering. It takes the theory of the classroom and different disciplines and applies them to as close a real world scenario as possible.”

It also exposed students to industry professionals from their respective fields. “Our industry mentors were so wonderful!” shared Michelle Maerks, Saddleback College landscape and design student. She continued, “Perry at Nuvis Landscape Architecture and Nick Straabe of Hunter Irrigation were particularly helpful. What I saw as important concepts to implement were supported, and the business aspects of implementing them were facilitated by our mentors.”

For some, the networking opportunities during the build led to jobs. Daniel Hinojosa, who served in many roles during the project, shared, “This opportunity was incredible and actually helped me get the job at a top architecture firm in the area! It was incredible because not only did I get to have a hands-on opportunity to design and build a home, I was able to network and meet professionals in the industry as well. The Solar Decathlon provided a great opportunity to see what it would be like to work in the profession.”

When it was all said and done, Team Orange County placed ninth overall in the competition. But the hard work and the experience wasn’t lost on the students, who built a zero net energy home that was seen by approximately 12,000 visitors from around the world, and judged by industry professionals including architects, environmental authors, museum consultants, engineers, and interior designers. 

“My proudest moment of the project was when public exhibiting began. The pressure to meet construction deadlines had passed, and we were all proud to be able to showcase the product of all our combined efforts to the public,” said Mahdi Jorat, Saddleback College engineering student.

To learn more about Saddleback’s programs in architecture, interior design, and horticulture, visit the advanced technology and applied science division website at