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Rancho Cielo Construction Academy in Salinas to compete in ‘decathlon’

Jan 03, 2024Jan 03, 2024

SALINAS – Members of the Rancho Cielo Construction Academy will be competing this fall at the inaugural Orange County Sustainability Decathlon in a contest to design and build innovative future homes powered by renewable energy.

"We were awarded $100,000 as startup funding to launch this project," said Thomas Rettenwender, founder of Ecological Design Lab and president of Realitree: Ecology and Architecture. "I heard about the competition and jumped on it, and they made an exception for us."

Rettenwender explained that the competition is geared toward university and college students with resources to work on expensive projects.

"So schools with architecture and engineering departments with lots of funding are the types that can participate," he said. "We are a different and unique program at Rancho Cielo. We take high school kids and teach them construction skills and some who have graduated are participating."

Rettenwender said the organizers of the competition found the story compelling and decided to include the Rancho Cielo team which includes about 40 students.

The Orange County Sustainability Decathlon, sponsored by the state of California, has a number of school teams designing the homes which they will assemble and display at the OC Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa for a public event Oct. 5-15. According to the Sustainability Decathlon, the winners will be those teams that best blend affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal renewable energy production, energy efficiency and sustainability.

"We are competing against 15 student teams from around the country – as well as some international teams – to see who can build the most sustainable and marketable full-size home," said Rettenwender. "Our rag-tag team from East Salinas is competing against Virginia Tech, (UC Santa Cruz), (UC San Diego), as well as a team from China."

Rettenwender said that last spring he put together a team to apply for the sustainability decathlon, partnering with Rancho Cielo since he worked at the Monterey County nonprofit a few years ago, noting Rancho Cielo has the new Ted Taylor Construction Shop and the Construction Academy which provides marginalized youth job training and experience.

The Rancho Cielo Construction Academy gives students a unique experience, engaging them in classroom, vocational activities and workshops through its partnership with the John Muir Charter School.

Rettenwender said he is happy to report that after about a year of design and planning, construction has started, and in order to boost visibility, an open house is scheduled for June 20 at 4:30 p.m. at Rancho Cielo where the community can see what has been accomplished and to tour the house being built, as well as providing an opportunity to meet the team.

He said the biggest challenge is the inflexibly tight timeline. The project must be fully functioning, completed, and delivered to Orange County by Oct. 1, ready to be open to the public at the fairgrounds.

"This house, titled NeXus 01, is a testament to what can happen if we work together to make change," said Rettenwender.

He said he believes it takes a village to come together to build a house – a community – and that is why it is called NeXus.

The NeXus 01 design process, lead by Architect Rettenwender and Project Manager Laura Cowan Higuchi, is guided by a team of industry leaders including Bill Hayward, Pete Scudder, Don Chapin, Mark Laliberte, Larry Weingarten, along with the staff at Rancho Cielo including CEO Chris Devers, John Anderson, Ed Bennett and Joe DeRousi.

Rettenwender said the list of supporters is long, and noted that Hayward has been a huge support, sponsoring the team with all the lumber, cabinets and higher-end building equipment, while Scudder is sponsoring a state-of-the-art solar system, and the Ferguson company has donated all the kitchen appliances.

"We’ve set ourselves an extremely high standard," said Rettenwender. "We really want to raise the standard of modular home construction."

He said the long-term goal is to pre-fabricate modular homes that can be delivered anywhere in the region with a high standard of design and healthy materials.

"Of course, we are also building a pathway for the students – to get skills and experience and jobs – and a network of professionals to support this workflow," said Rettenwender. "We are also planning a model 13-unit ecovillage out at the Rancho which is being submitted to Monterey County Planning at the moment."

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